Shifting Our Focus on Education

During the last three state budget debates, education discussions focused on spending. Unfortunately, what has been lost is a meaningful conversation about how we improve the quality of our education system. This has been to the detriment of our children.

Is the answer to our challenges a never-ending supply of taxpayer money? Far too often, government spending serves to deter genuine reform, efficiency, innovation and improvement. Spending alone is never the solution. This has been demonstrated over and over through comparisons of government spending and student academic outcomes.

The academic success of our students will determine our destiny as a country and society. Education is a social and economic issue. Our public education system is no longer the envy of the world and our youth are increasingly at a competitive disadvantage with their international peers. For years policy makers have been concerned with the widening achievement gap and students trapped in persistently failing schools. Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that students in the top percentiles of achievement – attending schools we would rank among our very best – are falling further behind their peers globally. Even in our highest-performing schools, students are graduating and passing all the required tests and still require remediation in their postsecondary work. This is unacceptable, and we must do more to ensure our students are prepared to compete in the global economy, be productive citizens, and inherit the leadership of our great country.

To restore the greatness of our education system, we need to focus on four areas for change.

First, I believe we need to adopt rigorous state academic standards. Our state assessments, along with curriculum, which are approved and determined at a local school district level, should be aligned to those standards. Pennsylvania is currently in the process of adopting improved state academic standards, and I feel these new standards are worthy of adoption. Many school districts have already begun working to design aligned curriculum. Our students’ ability to meet the academic standards will be measured by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and end-of-course Keystone Exams.

Second, we must hold students, educators, schools and school districts accountable. The Pennsylvania Department of Education is currently involved in the unveiling of a new school performance profile, which uses a research-based calculation to give schools a numeric score, taking into account multiple measures of academic achievement. I have co-sponsored legislation to convert that numeric score to a letter grade. We should use this information to modernize our funding formula in a way that takes into account student’s education needs and incentivizes academic performance. This tool can also help direct resources where they are needed most and hold recipients accountable for achievement results.

Third, we must adopt policies that identify, promote, encourage and reward educator effectiveness. Research clearly points to the impact a high-quality teacher has on a student. No in-school factor is more likely to determine the success of students than the quality of their teachers. Last session, I introduced House Bill 1980, which launched a new educator evaluation system. This new system is being implemented statewide this school year. I believe this system has been designed in a way that will provide educators with meaningful feedback to help them improve. We need to use this tool to inform hiring decisions, aid in recruitment and retention, establish a performance-based pay structure and reform tenure. In addition, we can use this system to evaluate our teacher preparation programs across the Commonwealth.

Finally, we must allow for parental choice and competition. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Parents, regardless of socio-economic status, should be able to choose the best academic options for their children, whether those options are traditional public schools, private, public charter, public cyber charter or home schools. Education is first and foremost the responsibility of the family. Our public policy should reflect that.

I do not dispute the importance of adequately funding education. I feel that passing a comprehensive reform package to include changes to our broken school funding formula, current prevailing wage and collective bargaining requirements, our pension system, bans on economic furloughs, and “hold harmless” provisions will immediately provide more dollars for students and programs without raising taxes. However, we can do much more to ensure that we are effectively funding education. Let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. We need to have a real conversation about improving the quality of our schools and more adequately preparing our children for the future.

Ryan Aument is the State Representative for the 41st Legislative District in Lancaster County.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation in the General Assembly.