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Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Economics of the School Reform

As the economic recession grinds on, the challenges facing our educational systems are mounting.

More school systems than ever before are now facing huge budget cuts that slice the very arteries of the educational pulse of this nation.  When town and city administrators are forced to curtail the hiring of new teachers, or force the retirement of older teachers, class sizes then increase.  The teacher-to-student ratio expands accordingly meaning less face time per student, reducing the overall effectiveness of educational institutions.

The economic crisis does not just affect the schools in terms of budgets.  Financial difficulties within students’ families also play a huge role in the educational problems of the United States.  With more parents scrambling to make ends meet, there is less parental involvement with their children.  As a result, students may become unmotivated and slack off on assignments.  They may become problematic at school, meaning more time and effort from school administrators, leaving less time to improve their various systems.

In what some consider the worst economy in decades, most American homes are dual-income, with both parents working one or more jobs to try to meet their financial obligations.  The time parents have to give their children any type of grounding in basic knowledge is severely limited.  The result is children starting school without much of the very basic knowledge children had in generations past.  Without that early foundation on which to build, children find themselves forever running at a deficit.

Furthermore, testing regimens for our children are anything but uniform. Some children are over-tested to an extreme; States like Massachusetts may be venerated for their stringent policies and standardized testing, but that level of stringency does not necessarily carry over to other states. In fact, many other states are not nearly as rigorous in their own testing procedures, preferring to do only what is required to ensure that they receive federal education funds, and nothing more.

This level of inconsistency then becomes yet another problem for students.  Given the economic climate of the nation, many students may find themselves moving from state-to-state as their parents pursue employment or better jobs.  Inconsistency among state’ standardized testing procedures may result in students who have relocated suddenly finding themselves under a lot of pressure to do better than what was required in their previous school.

In generations past, children starting school came into the system with far more knowledge already in hand.  They knew their letters, they knew how to count, and some of them already knew the fundamentals of reading.  This, of course, stems from the fact that most families had a parent who stayed home during the day and was therefore able to spend more time with the child.

There also exists today a larger segment of the population in need of secondary language education than there ever has been before.  With so many immigrants swelling the schools’ attendance rolls, this adds pressure on the school system to provide quality instruction to these students. This is especially true of southwestern border states and high population density urban areas within large metropolitan cities.

The role of special needs education has expanded, further adding pressure on school districts even while budgets cuts threaten to dismantle the hoped-for increases to better the opportunities of these disadvantaged students.

Lastly, the current methods being used today in many challenged school systems to retain teachers are ineffective at best.  A number of the accelerated teacher certification programs, such as weekend and online programs, have good intentions but are turning out teachers that are unprepared to the meet the challenges that they soon will face in troubled classrooms.

Although these teachers are inexpensive since they are brand new and have not worked their way up to better pay scales and benefits, they are more likely to jump ship and leave the school system instead of staying to nurture their profession. Of course, the next group of teachers to replace them is new and inexperienced, too, but provides fresh bodies in the classrooms at an inexpensive level – so the cycle repeats itself. This is good for the budget, but not so good for long-term performance, morale, and achievement.

Certainly, the economic situation affects the task of balancing budgets, by the school system, government entities, and parents. Conversely, more money does not necessarily mean more improvement.

America spends more per student than any other nation in the world, and yet we see meager results. With this kind of money being pumped into the system, why are our school systems in the state that they are? There’s no arguing that our schools need to be well funded in order for our children to succeed, but clearly our schools need to do a better job utilizing the funds that they already receive.

Tagline- Matthew Lynch is an Assistant professor of Education at Widener University. He can be contacted at mlynch@mail.widener.edu.

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