U.S. Educational Indicators
Public education remains a central issue for American society. Federal, state, and local governments, charged with the responsibility of ensuring that public school students succeed in their coursework, have endeavored to establish benchmarks by which they may monitor student progress. These indicators focus on several areas: quality of student life, student backgrounds, teacher qualifications, and, of course, student performance. This paper takes an in-depth look at each of these indicators and how they are used to both paint an accurate illustration of the state of public schools and prompt change where needed.
Keywords Demographics; Educational Indicators; Education Reform; K-12; Standardized Testing
In the late eighteenth century, American public schools were a dreadful sight. Students only attended classes for a few weeks during the winter months, due to the cold. Their teachers were untrained and inexperienced, and the facilities were substandard at best. In Massachusetts, one man (who himself came from a childhood of poverty and school disrepair) took it upon himself to improve public schools. Horace Mann, the State Senate President, became exasperated with school conditions and resigned his post in order to head a new state Board of Education to address the issues affecting those institutions. Mann's efforts included extending the school year, providing adequate teacher training, supplying students with the proper books and working to renovate and improve school structures. In essence, Mann was establishing a series of educational indicators by which school improvements could transpire (PBS Roundtable, 2001).
Mann's crusading ways on behalf of the Massachusetts public school system served as an inspiration for other school systems to take similar steps. Since that early phase in the history of American public schools, Mann's work continues as a work in progress. There remain countless school buildings in states of disrepair, issues concerning adequately trained staff, classroom size and an overall desire to improve upon the way Americans educate their children using taxpayer dollars.
The twenty-first century is an era in which the most complex technologies in human history are central elements in virtually any of life's activities; a strong educational background is paramount for an individual's success. Modern society demands advanced training not only in these technologies, but in the most basic skills as well. Among these capabilities are writing, reading, analysis, and computation. Each of these basic proficiencies are developed and honed not just at a secondary school level, but at every level prior to and beyond the high school years.
Of course, one's education is not just useful for his or her own personal development. In fact, an educated population is essential to a local, regional, and national economy as well. A trained, well-schooled workforce is both a powerful attribute for existing employers and an enticing incentive for relocating companies. In short, an educated workforce in no small part contributes to the establishment of a competitive, successful economy.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that political leaders consider education a top issue, one that is always salient and can never be overemphasized. In the hotly contested presidential election of 2000, at center stage was the fact that voters felt that the nation's educational system was treated with a sort of laissez-faire approach — that fundamentally, American public schools were sound and that any problems they experienced would eventually be corrected with minimal government intervention. Some observers believe that this attitude was a major factor in propelling George W. Bush into the White House during that crucial election, as his call for attention to failing public schools echoed the views of Horace Mann, whereas Democrats, who had enjoyed the presidency for two terms prior, seemed ineffectual at addressing the issues facing American schools (Winston, 2008).
Indeed, public education remains a central issue for American society. Federal, state, and local governments, charged with the responsibility of ensuring that public school students succeed in their coursework, have endeavored to establish benchmarks by which they may monitor student progress. These indicators focus on several areas: quality of student life, student backgrounds, teacher qualifications, and, of course, student performance. This paper takes an in-depth look at each of these indicators and how they are used to both paint an accurate illustration of the state of public schools and prompt change where needed.
Quality of Student Life
As was the case with Horace Mann in the eighteenth century, the first place leaders look when attempting to assess school performance is the institution itself. First, enduring stories from across the country of antiquated schools with asbestos in the walls, bacteria-laden ventilation systems, broken heat and air-conditioning systems, leaking roofs, and poor lighting stimulate loud calls to action not only by parents of enrolled students but from political leaders and others as well. Indeed, the physical state of public education institutions is just as important an indicator of a system's performance as the student bodies within their walls.
In 2000, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released the results of a study that estimated that as much as $112 billion was needed to fully repair deteriorating public schools. This figure was twice as much as the GAO estimated was needed only five years prior. That impressive number was even called into question by the National Education Association, which more than doubled the GAO's estimate to $254 billion. Adding to this issue is the fact that district leaders, municipal and even state governments would likely never be able to raise and distribute the funds their school systems need to avoid posing health risks and otherwise dampening student performance (Agron, 2000).
The quality of student life as an important factor to take into consideration is by no means localized entirely to repairs to the building, either. How many students are in each classroom is also an important indicator for determining public school performance. In the last few years, studies of a variety of public school systems took a critical look at the effects of programs designed to reduce classroom size. Although the systems in question were very different in composition and geography, the results were very similar. Most of these analyses reported that reduced classroom size-oriented efforts led to greater parental involvement, helped reduce instances of misbehavior and violence and fostered a renewed pleasure in classroom learning among students, all of which lead to improved student performance (Myers, 2000).
The fact that the physical state of schools and the number of students in a classroom are considered critical indicators of a school system's overall performance gives rise to political focus on each of these issues. As mentioned earlier, federal government estimates reveal hundreds of billions of dollars would be needed to meet the needs of the multitude of deteriorating schools. While the figures themselves are subject to debate, there is no doubt that leaky pipes, poor ventilation and lighting, the presence of asbestos, and other problems are perceived to weigh heavily on the minds of those who track school performance, even if the means to solve the problems (namely costs) are elusive.
The same point can be raised on classroom size. Clearly, to address the concern of overcrowded classrooms, money must be spent to hire more teachers. The issue is indeed a salient one, and the policy response is clear: more teachers and classroom space is necessary to address a growing student population. However, while the solution is clear, the size of its cost is unanticipated and likely cannot be implemented without gobbling up budgets at the same time (Moore, 2006).
Without a doubt, the comfort a student feels while in school is an important factor in his or her academic development. It is no surprise that analysts consider the physical state of the building and classroom size as significant indicators for gauging the performance of a school system. Unfortunately, the daunting financial implications involved in correcting issues as they surface tend to result in the problem persisting.
Along with the study of the physical conditions of the...
(The entire section is 3785 words.)