Johns Hopkins’ Dr. David Steiner on The Wild West of American Education

David Steiner: The fundamental cause of poor outcomes is that policy leaders have eroded the instructional core & designed our education system for failure.

The American public education system is unique in many facets, some of which set it apart from leaders in education in not-so-intended ways. In a recent article for education reporting and analysis site The74, Dr. David Steiner, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, examines the American education system and how its shortfalls should be re-imagined.

Steiner opens his article with a firm declaration:

Despite nearly $200 billion in emergency federal spending on K-12 schooling, students are doing worse than a decade ago, and lower-performing students are today less capable of doing math than they were 35 years ago.

He then explores the two sides to the argument: those who think more investment is needed to improve educational outcomes and those who argue that extensive investments have yet to prove impactful for student outcomes thus far.

Steiner argues that many of these “poor outcomes” are symptoms of a more significant issue — the erosion of education infrastructure. He writes:

In multiple states, a heavy reliance on local property taxes to pay for education creates regressive per-pupil funding, meaning that more dollars go to the education of more affluent students. Teacher preparation still relies too much on textbook theory instead of clinical practice (a vital switch the medical profession made a century ago). Tests, especially in reading, are poorly designed (e.g., “Hamlet was confused because … A, B, C or D  — circle the right response”). Too many parents are stuck sending their children to underperforming schools.

But these are just symptoms. Factors beyond the schoolhouse door – the legacy of race-based redlining, the underfunding of health care for the worst off, the lack of support for child care and parental leave, and other social and economic policies — remain hugely impactful. But inside the education system itself, the fundamental cause of poor outcomes is that education policy leaders have eroded the instructional core and designed our education system for failure.

Steiner gives several examples of this erosion:

  • He calls Pre-K a “Wild West,” the result of which, he says, is that “students enter kindergarten with large gaps in their readiness to learn.”
  • Students aren’t seriously assessed until they are eight years old, “by which time it’s too late for sustained intervention — the gaps never close.”
  • Meanwhile, he says, “curricula, tests and teacher education programs exist in deep silos, creating a fragmented system where teachers aren’t trained to teach the materials their schools use and tests don’t test students’ mastery of those materials (with a tiny exception in Louisiana).”
  • We have also created a preferential ranking of subjects: “Student achievement in reading and math, and, to a lesser extent, science, get all the attention, while students who are drawn to robotics, graphic design, the arts, environmental science, etc., can’t take high school assessments that count for entry into higher education.”
  • And on technology: “To top it all off, the American K-12 education system spends at least $30 billon per year on educational technology with essentially nothing to show for it.  As it was for the introduction of radio, then TV, then computers, so it is likely to be for artificial intelligence — the latest great hope to circumvent and supplant effective, inspiring teaching of children by a human being.”

Steiner also compellingly compares American testing to that of of top-educated nations:

Almost uniquely among advanced industrialized nations, U.S. school systems disconnect testing from student incentives. State tests are used to evaluate schools but are often irrelevant to students. Only 11 states still require high school exit exams for graduation, and there are often alternative pathways for those who fail the test. We don’t link the results of high school exit exams to college admissions — instead, using grade-point averages and tests like the ACT and SAT, which are disconnected from course curricula. Speaking of GPA, we have steadily inflated grades at school and college: We simply call success what was once failure.

Read the full article.

The 2023 MACo Summer Conference general session, Embracing Without Spacing: Pre-K Expansion and Early Childhood Education,” will examine the capital challenges and opportunities of Pre-K expansion, including facility space and funding.
The 2023 MACo Summer Conference will be held at the Roland Powell Convention Center in Ocean City, MD, from August 16-19. This year’s theme is “Where the Rubber Meets the Road” More information can be found on our conference website.