Education & Academia

Kids Need More School Choice

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes shortening the school year by five days to save $1.1 billion and help shrink the state’s $42-billion deficit. State superintendent Jack O’Connell opposes the idea, declaring that a longer school year is needed to prepare students for “the competitive global economy.”

International evidence, however, overwhelmingly indicates that expanding school choice, not the school year, produces students who are global competitors.

Fully 70 percent of the countries that outperformed the United States in combined math and science literacy among 15-year-olds had more schools competing for students, according to data from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This means students in such countries as Communist China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Germany, as well as former Soviet-bloc countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, and Latvia, all enjoy more education options than their U.S. peers.

OECD data also indicate that school choice benefits students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Among the top five countries with above-average performance and a below-average impact of student socioeconomic background, competition for students was the most common characteristic. On average, 80 percent of schools in Australia, Canada, Finland, Japan, and Korea faced high levels of competition for students. Parental school choice was even a more common characteristic than selective school admissions (26 percent) or parental pressure on their children to do well in school (73 percent). Among these high-performing countries, students spent an average of less than three hours a week on out-of-school lessons and around five hours per week on homework.

Top global performers are also getting the job done in a fraction of the time and for pennies on the dollar compared to the United States. Among the 32 countries participating in the latest OECD assessment, the U.S. has the most teaching hours per public school year — 1,080 — compared to the international average of 803. Top international performers have far fewer teaching hours per school year.

Germany and the Netherlands have around 775 hours each. Finland has 600, while Korea has roughly 575. With 505 teaching hours per school year, Japan has the least of all OECD assessment countries. Quality time, not more quantity time, is what American students need to be prepared for the competitive global economy. Another common feature among global academic leaders is performance pay for teachers.

Fourteen OECD participating countries reward teaching performance. In nine of those countries schools, not state governments, determine performance-pay policies: the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and Slovenia. In two-thirds of OECD assessment countries, schools in disadvantaged areas offer teachers higher salaries, and 10 countries offer higher pay for teachers in certain fields.

Those countries spend significantly less than the United States but achieve superior results. U.S. cumulative spending per student between the ages of six to 15 is $80,000 and the average math scale score is about 475 out of a possible 1,000. Only Sweden spends as much, but its students perform 100 scale score points higher. In fact, all countries that offer teacher performance pay perform better while spending less, from the Slovak Republic, which spends $15,000 per student and achieves a math scale score just below 500, to top performer Finland, which spends about $55,000 per student and achieves a math scale score of nearly 550.  

California is fond of bragging that it has the eighth largest economy in the world. Immigration by people educated in top-performing countries is largely responsible for the Golden State’s economic standing. Research suggests California can no longer import enough talent to maintain a strong economy. With the state teetering on insolvency, it is time to start producing more home-grown talent. The first step is to stop insulating the public schooling monopoly from competition.

California was a national leader in academic achievement during the 1960s. Today it ranks 48th in basic reading and math performance. At $40 billion, California’s annual general-fund spending just on K-12 education approaches New York’s entire state general fund budget of $47 billion, and beats every other state’s general fund budget hands down.  The California public education system also rivals numerous Fortune 500 companies in terms of sheer revenue, albeit not results, outranking Intel, Walt Disney, Apple, Gap, Google, Hilton Hotels, and Yahoo, to name a few.

Schwarzenegger’s savings plan, meanwhile, assumes school districts will voluntarily comply in exchange for greater flexibility over their budgets. It also assumes teacher union contracts will be renegotiated at a lower rate to reflect a 175-day school year instead of the current 180 days. In contrast, state superintendent O’Connell and the California Teachers Association are convinced that more time and money for the state’s public schooling monopoly will somehow prepare students to compete. Both notions are extreme examples of California dreamin’.

If global competitiveness is to be more than a slogan, elected officials should forget about tinkering with the school year. Instead, let parents pick their children’s schools, let schools compete for students, and let teachers be paid according to their performance and market demand.

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