Biggest Problem Facing Public Schools: Is It Really Just About the Money?

Biggest Problem Facing Public Schools: Is It Really Just About the Money?
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Every year, PDK (Phi Delta Kappa International) and Gallup conduct a poll measuring the public’s attitudes toward public schools. With data going back to 1969, the results of this poll often shed a lot of insight on the general populace’s changing perceptions with regard to education. In particular, the first question of the poll is highly interesting – it’s an open-ended query that asks, “What do you think are the biggest problems that the public schools of your community must deal with?”

Now, “lack of financial support” has always been one of the dominating responses to this question, but in recent times, this reply has become even more prevalent. In 2012, 35 percent of the poll’s respondents pointed to this as the biggest problem facing schools – a significant increase from the 23 percent figure reported in the poll results for 2002. Further, if you restrict the group and only look at the responses given by parents with children in public schools, 43 percent of those surveyed believe lack of money to be the primary issue.

2013 Update: In the results released in September 2013, Lack of Financial Support continues to be identified by an average of 35 percent, unchanged from the 2012 total.

Does This Mean Other Issues Are Being Solved?

At first glance, the poll’s results seem to suggest that people are less worried about issues such as drugs, gang violence, lack of discipline and overcrowding than they were 10 years ago. But is that really the case? I’m not so sure. One of the main problems with open-ended questions is that they leave a lot of room for interpretation.

In this particular case, it appears that a large chunk of people believe that more money needs to be directed toward public schools. However, there’s not really any information on what the respondents think this money should actually be used for. It’s very possible that various subsets of the poll’s respondents think that this extra money should be invested in programs to combat drug and violence problems – or that the money should be used to build more schools and hire more teachers to address overcrowding issues.

The very fact that more people are pointing to lack of funding as the most significant issue affecting public schools could actually be indicative of a completely different problem we have today. We know – or, at least, we believe – that something is wrong, but we’re not quite sure what the real, underlying issue is or how to solve it. But instead of admitting this, we just fall back to making generic arguments. After all, don’t most of us believe that having more money at our disposal is the first step to fixing almost anything?

What Should We Be Asking?

Instead of just accepting the argument that more money is needed to improve our public schools, we need to dig a little deeper and think about how that money will be used and how to measure the effectiveness of budget increases. In addition, we need to look at how current funds are being allocated and investigate other potential solutions that don’t necessarily involve the investment of additional funds.

For instance, the Broad Foundation has put together a very thought-provoking list with examples of how bureaucracy is holding back students and teachers. Some of the items point to areas where money is being wasted or, at the very least, not getting to its intended sources. Others point to more global issues, such as the need to empower teachers and to look for new ways to increase student engagement. In the business world, leaders have shown that empowering and engaging employees improves productivity and efficiency. If we can bring those same concepts to the world of education, couldn’t we see the same types of results?

Getting Back to the Real Problems

I’m certainly not disagreeing with the fact that funding is a critical issue for public schools, but before we start throwing money in the air and hoping for a solution, we need to focus more on identifying and defining the true problems. Then, when developing a plan to attack those problems, we can get back to figuring out how and where to distribute a budget to maximize effectiveness. While we’re doing all of this, we also need to stop and really listen to teachers. They’re the ones on the front lines, and if we give them a chance to use their voices, we just might learn a thing or two.