Commentary: First in Booze, First In Shoes, Last In Education
Statistic after statistic, ranking after ranking shows American students lagging behind their counterparts across the globe. Missouri’s schools are no exception. Missouri is a perfect example of our country’s diseased public education system. Three districts are currently unaccredited by the state — Kansas City, Riverview Gardens and Normandy — and the St. Louis Public School system is on the brink, sitting in “provisional accreditation” purgatory.
All are academic failures. However, the issue is not limited to a handful of urban school districts. Overall, Missouri’s schools were ranked 41st in the country by Education Week in its yearly evaluation of the nation’s education system. Additionally, compared to the rest of the country, Missouri had the third lowest rate of high school students taking Advanced Placement exams.
As with most political debates, a barrage of proposed solutions has been thrown at the education problem. Many cry that Missouri’s schools are underfunded and that increasing the funding for the worst schools would set our state’s students up to succeed in short order. A glance at the facts proves this wrong.
According to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, a school district’s average expenditure per student has no correlation with educational success. For example, many of the top districts in the state spend roughly the same amount as Normandy, Riverview Gardens, or Kansas City.
From 2009-2013, Kirkwood, Ladue and Parkway all spent roughly $12,000 per average daily attendance (ADA), nearly the same as Normandy. And over the same period, Rockwood, whose Eureka and Marquette high schools rank among the best in the state, spent about the same as Riverview Gardens — roughly $9,000 per ADA.
So if funding alone does not a make a good school district, what does? The short answer is small, community-centered schools, rigorous evaluations of both teachers and students, and strict discipline.
Parental investment in education uniformly leads to better schools. The same principle can be applied to schools as a whole. Students attending a high school with thousands of students can drift from class to class, without any sense of belonging. Small schools are more responsive to individual students. Additionally, when the students come from the immediate area, schools are tied more closely to the community as a whole. The more that people invest in a school the better, and small community-based schools generate more investment from students, parents, teachers, and the larger community.
To ensure success, both students and teachers must be evaluated regularly. Standardized testing is not perfect, but it is the best available tool to ensure sufficient educational opportunities in all districts. The Missouri Assessment Program work for students, but the state lacks comprehensive evaluations of teachers. Ideally, each teacher would be evaluated during class. Evaluations would occur roughly once a month, with peer evaluations accounting for roughly three-quarters of the whole. State officials or another third party would conduct the remainder of the evaluations. Tenure would be based upon a teacher’s complete five-year compendium of evaluations.
The third, and most important key to improving Missouri schools is strengthening discipline standards. Many of our state’s worst schools struggle with violence and crime.
While only a handful of students in these schools are involved in violence, all are affected. Most instigators remain in the building, receiving either detention or suspension. Even those who receive out-of-school suspension return in due time. The solution is to remove instigators to a much stricter alternative school. KIPP charter schools, for example, thrive by insisting on almost draconian discipline. Those who warrant out-of-school suspension should be sent to a smaller school that follows the KIPP model for an extended period. Repeat offenders would be permanently reassigned. Consequently, the majority of students would remain in their neighborhood school, free from trouble and free to learn.
According to C.S. Lewis, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” Let’s move on toward academic achievement through implementing much-needed academic reforms.
Yossi Katz is a senior at Clayton High School and an editor on the school paper.