The Trick to Fixing Schools

More universities should partner with local schools to help improve the public education system

Daily Pennsylvanian
February 5, 2010

By Katherine Rea

If you haven’t heard the news, apparently our health and education systems are broken. Test scores are low, we can’t get our kids academically proficient by 2014 and the schools that need improvement often aren’t making adequate yearly progress. Uh oh.

So the Obama administration hopes to drastically overhaul education laws by scrapping many provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. The new goal is for all high-school graduates to be “college-and-career ready.”

“What does that mean exactly?” asked Washington-based Educational Consultant Steven Goodman.

“College-career readiness” could mean many things, but some states already track concrete numbers that arguably define the phrase. According to the think tank Education Sector, many states track SAT, ACT or Advanced Placement scores, the percentage of high-school graduates who go to college, college grade point averages and one-year college retention rates. Two states, Florida and Missouri, look at work-force data to see if students who don’t go directly to college can get a well-paying job.

The problem with using this kind of data is that it’s not relative in the same way improvement is – wealthy and poor districts can both show improvement. But it’s a no-brainer that wealthier students have higher SAT, ACT and AP scores – often because they can afford the extra test prep. And college enrollment is too often a luxury for the wealthy. And there are factors that contribute to success and retention in college that can’t always be attributed to a student’s high-school experience. And finally, regional employment can cause drastic effects on whether or not a high-school graduate with low-mobility can get a well-paying job (compare employment chances of a graduate from unemployment-laden Michigan with one from Wyoming). If the government allocated funds based on this kind of achievement rather than No Child Left Behind’s standard of “adequate yearly progress,” it seems to me that high schools would be less accountable than they currently are in ensuring students’ success.

If the system is broken in the first place, all the money in the world won’t be able to fix it, no matter where it comes from. But assuming that extra funds can make a difference, Goodman suggests that private universities could play a larger role in helping public secondary schools.

Federal tax laws require private foundations to give 5 percent of their net investment assets for charitable and administrative purposes. Universities are exempt from this 5-percent payout rule, but Goodman suggests that maybe they shouldn’t be. If universities were required to give 5 percent of their endowment to surrounding public schools, that could go a long way in improving our education system. Five percent of a private university’s endowment is often tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Arguably it makes sense for universities to fund education programs, though increased endowment spending gets tricky since funds are often restricted to very specific purposes.

Universities are also exempt from the payout rule because they often conduct their own charitable activities. Perhaps instead of a required payout, private universities could be required to offer professional development and instructional support for public schools in need of improvement, similar to what Penn does for West Philadelphia public schools. If we take Penn as an example, the University already has several initiatives to improve public education in Philadelphia, like its partnership with the Penn Alexander School (a public elementary school a few blocks from campus), as well as overall instructional and resource support for West Philadelphia public schools.

A quick fix for the country’s education system isn’t possible, and changing the definition of proficient to “college-and career-ready” won’t do the trick. But universities can play a role in improving K-12 instruction, whether by supporting schools in the community, as Penn does, or producing graduates who will affect the education system as future parents, policy makers and, hopefully, teachers.

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