Contemporary Education Issues

Major educational issues in the United States center on curriculum, funding, and control. Of critical importance, because of its enormous implications on education and funding, is the No Child Left Behind Act.

Tracking is the practice of dividing students at the primary or secondary school level into separate classes, depending if the student is high, average, or low achievers. It also offers different curriculum paths for students headed for college and for those who are bound directly for the workplace or technical schools.

Curriculum issues
Curricula in the United States vary widely from district to district. Not only do schools offer a range of topics and quality, but private schools may include religious classes as mandatory for attendance. This raises the question of government funding vouchers in states with anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments in their constitution. This has produced camps of argument over the standardization of curricula and to what degree. These same groups often are advocates of standardized testing, which is mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.

There is debate over which subjects should receive the most focus, with astronomy and geography among those cited as not being taught enough in schools.

English in the classroom
A large issue facing curricula today is the use of the English language in teaching. English is spoken by over 95% of the nation, and there is a strong national tradition of upholding English as the de facto official language. Some 9.7 million children aged 5 to 17 primarily speak a language other than English at home. Of those, about 1.3 million children do not speak English well or at all.

Forty-four percent of college faculty believe that incoming students aren't ready for writing at the college level. Ninety percent of high school teachers believe exiting students are well-prepared.

Drop out rates are a concern in American four year colleges. In New York, 54 percent of students entering four-year colleges in 1997 had a degree six years later — and even fewer Hispanics and blacks did. 33 percent of the freshmen who enter the University of Massachusetts Boston graduate within six years. Less than 41 percent graduate from the University of Montana, and 44 percent from the University of New Mexico.

Since the 1980s the number of educated Americans has continued to grow, but at a slower rate. Some have attributed this to an increase in the foreign born portion of the workforce. However, the decreasing growth of the educational workforce has instead been primarily due to slowing down in educational attainment of people schooled in the United States.

Evolution in Kansas
In 1999 the School Board of the state of Kansas caused controversy when it decided to eliminate teaching of evolution in its state assessment tests. Scientists from around the country demurred. Many religious and family values groups, on the other hand, claimed that evolution is simply a theory in the colloquial sense, and as such creationist ideas should therefore be taught alongside it as an alternative viewpoint. A majority supported teaching intelligent design and/or creationism in public schools.

Violence and drug use
Violence is a problem in high schools, depending on the size and level of the school. Between 1996 and September 2003, at least 46 students and teachers were killed in 27 incidents involving the use of firearms. Information from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that, in 2001, students between the ages of 12 and 18 were the victims of 2 million crimes in US schools. 62% of the crimes were thefts. Between July 1999 and June 2000, 24 murders and 8 suicides took place in American schools.

Also in 2001, 47% of American high school students drank alcohol at least once; 5% drank right on school territory. 24% of high school students smoked marijuana, 5% smoking right at school. 29% of students who smoke marijuana obtain the drug at school.

Sex education
Almost all students in the U.S. receive some form of sex education at least once between grades 7 and 12; many schools begin addressing some topics as early as grades 4 or 5. However, what students learn varies widely, because curriculum decisions are so decentralized. Many states have laws governing what is taught in sex education classes or allowing parents to opt out. Some state laws leave curriculum decisions to individual school districts. For example, a 1999 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that most U.S. sex education courses in grades 7 through 12 cover puberty, HIV, STDs, abstinence, implications of teenage pregnancy, and how to resist peer pressure. Other studied topics, such as methods of birth control and infection prevention, sexual orientation, sexual abuse, and factual and ethical information about abortion, varied more widely.

However, according to a 2004 survey, a majority of the 1001 parent groups polled wants complete sex education in the schools. The American people are heavily divided over the issue. Over 80% of polled parents agreed with the statement "Sex education in school makes it easier for me to talk to my child about sexual issues," while under 17% agreed with the statement that their children were being exposed to "subjects I don't think my child should be discussing." 10 percent believed that their children's sexual education class forced them to discuss sexual issues "too early." On the other hand, 49 percent of the respondents (the largest group) were "somewhat confident" that the values taught in their children's sex ed classes were similar to those taught at home, and 23 percent were less confident still. (The margin of error was plus or minus 4.7 percent.)

Textbook review and adoption
In many localities in the United States, the curriculum taught in public schools is influenced by the textbooks used by the teachers. In some states, textbooks are selected for all students at the state level. Since states such as California and Texas represent a considerable market for textbook publishers, these states can exert influence over the content of the books.

In 2010, the Texas Board of Education adopted new Social Studies standards that could potentially impact the content of textbooks purchased in other parts of the country. The deliberations that resulted in the new standards were partisan in nature and are said to reflect a conservative leaning in the view of United States history.

As of January 2009, the four largest college textbook publishers in the United States were:
    Pearson Education (including such imprints as Addison-Wesley and Prentice Hall)
    Cengage Learning (formerly Thomson Learning)
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Other US textbook publishers include:

    John Wiley & Sons
    Jones and Bartlett Publishers
    F. A. Davis Company
    W. W. Norton & Company
    SAGE Publications
    Flat World Knowledge

Funding for K–12 schools
According to a 2005 report from the OECD, the United States is tied for first place with Switzerland when it comes to annual spending per student on its public schools, with each of those two countries spending more than $11,000 (in U.S. currency). However, the United States is ranked 37th in the world in education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. All but seven of the leading countries are in the third world; ranked high because of a low GDP. U.S. public schools lag behind the schools of other developed countries in the areas of reading, math, and science.

According to a 2007 article in The Washington Post, the Washington D.C. public school district spends $12,979 per student per year. This is the third highest level of funding per student out of the 100 biggest school districts in the U.S. According to the article, however, these schools are ranked last in the amount of funding spent on teachers and instruction, and first on the amount spent on administration. The school district has produced outcomes that are lower than the national average. In reading and math, the district's students score the lowest among 11 major school districts – even when poor children are compared with other poor children. 33% of poor fourth graders in the U.S. lack basic skills in math, but in Washington D.C., it's 62%. In 2004, the U.S. Congress set up a voucher program for low income minority students in Washington D.C. to attend private schools. The vouchers were $7,500 per student per year. The parents said their children were receiving a much better education from the private schools. In 2007, Washington D.C. non-voting delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said she wanted the voucher program to be eliminated, and that the public schools needed more money. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supports retaining vouchers for the district only, as do some DC parent groups.

According to a 2006 study by the Goldwater Institute, Arizona's public schools spend 50% more per student than Arizona's private schools. The study also says that while teachers constitute 72% of the employees at private schools, they make up less than half of the staff at public schools. According to the study, if Arizona's public schools wanted to be like private schools, they would have to hire approximately 25,000 more teachers, and eliminate 21,210 administration employees.

During the 2006–2007 school year, a private school in Chicago founded by Marva Collins to teach low income minority students charged $5,500 for tuition, and parents said that the school did a much better job than the Chicago public school system. However, Collins' school was forced to close in 2008 due to lack of sufficient enrollment and funding. Meanwhile, during the 2007–2008 year, Chicago public school officials claimed that their budget of $11,300 per student was not enough.

In 1985 in Kansas City, Missouri, a judge ordered the school district to raise taxes and spend more money on public education. Spending was increased so much, that the school district was spending more money per student than any of the country's other 280 largest school districts with a charge to "dream" of the possibilities and to make them happen. Although this very high level of spending continued for more than a decade, there was no improvement in the school district's academic performance.

Public school defenders answer that both of these examples are misleading, as the task of educating students is easier in private schools, which can expel or refuse to accept students who lag behind their peers in academic achievement or behavior, while public schools have no such recourse and must continue to attempt to educate these students. For this reason, comparisons of the cost of education in public schools to that of private schools is misleading; private school education can be accomplished with less funding because in most cases they educate those students who are easiest to teach.

But not in all cases. For example, Marva Collins created her low cost private school specifically for the purpose of teaching low income African American children whom the public school system had labeled as being "learning disabled". One article about Marva Collins' school stated, "Working with students having the worst of backgrounds, those who were working far below grade level, and even those who had been labeled as 'unteachable,' Marva was able to overcome the obstacles. News of third grade students reading at ninth grade level, four-year-olds learning to read in a few months, outstanding test scores, disappearance of behavioral problems, second-graders studying Shakespeare, and other incredible reports, astounded the public."

According to a 1999 article by William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, increased levels of spending on public education have not made the schools better. Among many other things, the article cites the following statistics:

    Between 1960 and 1995, U.S. public school spending per student, adjusted for inflation, increased by 212%.
    In 1994, less than half of all U.S. public school employees were teachers.
    Out of 21 industrialized countries, U.S. 12th graders ranked 19th in math, 16th in science, and last in advanced physics.

A 2008 report by The Heritage Foundation provides the following chart based on data from the US Department of Education indicating no real improvement in reading scores, while per student expenditure more than doubles from $4,060 in 1970 to $9,266 in 2005 ($20,436.03 adjusted for inflation since 1970).

Other commentators have suggested that the public school system has exhibited signs of success. SAT scores have risen consistently over the past decades, despite the fact that the pool of students taking the test has increased from an academic elite to a much more representative sampling of the population. Commentators have suggested that this increase in scores, coming as it does at a time when more students have started to take the test and the public schooling system has faced ever-increasing challenge, suggests that the US educational system is much more effective than is commonly believed, and that the negative cast common in public perception is due to negative propaganda disseminated by elements with a personal interest in discrediting or weakening public education.

Funding for schools in the United States is complex. One current controversy stems much from the No Child Left Behind Act. The Act gives the Department of Education the right to withhold funding if it believes a school, district, or even a state is not complying and is making no effort to comply. However, federal funding accounts for little of the overall funding schools receive. The vast majority comes from the state government and in some cases from local property taxes. Various groups, many of whom are teachers, constantly push for more funding. They point to many different situations, such as the fact that in many schools funding for classroom supplies is so inadequate that teachers, especially those at the elementary level, must supplement their supplies with purchases of their own.

Property taxes as a primary source of funding for public education have become highly controversial, for a number of reasons. First, if a state's population and land values escalate rapidly, many longtime residents may find themselves paying property taxes much higher than anticipated. In response to this phenomenon, California's citizens passed Proposition 13 in 1978, which severely restricted the ability of the Legislature to expand the state's educational system to keep up with growth. Some states, such as Michigan, have investigated or implemented alternate schemes for funding education that may sidestep the problems of funding based mainly on property taxes by providing funding based on sales or income tax. These schemes also have failings, negatively impacting funding in a slow economy.

One of the biggest debates in funding public schools is funding by local taxes or state taxes. The federal government supplies around 8.5% of the public school system funds, according to a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. The remaining split between state and local governments averages 48.7 percent from states and 42.8 percent from local sources. However, the division varies widely. In Hawaii local funds make up 1.7 percent, while state sources account for nearly 90.1 percent.

The most expensive school in the United States was constructed by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2010. It cost $578 million; served 4,200 K–12 students.

Judicial intervention
The reliance on local funding sources has led to a long history of court challenges about how states fund their schools. These challenges have relied on interpretations of state constitutions after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that school funding was not a matter of the U.S. Constitution (San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973)). The state court cases, beginning with the California case of Serrano v. Priest, 5 Cal.3d 584 (1971), were initially concerned with equity in funding, which was defined in terms of variations in spending across local school districts. More recently, state court cases have begun to consider what has been called 'adequacy.' These cases have questioned whether the total amount of spending was sufficient to meet state constitutional requirements. Perhaps the most famous adequacy case is Abbott v. Burke, 100 N.J. 269, 495 A.2d 376 (1985), which has involved state court supervision over several decades and has led to some of the highest spending of any U.S. districts in the so-called Abbott districts. The background and results of these cases are analyzed in a book by Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth. That analysis concludes that funding differences are not closely related to student outcomes and thus that the outcomes of the court cases have not led to improved policies.

Funding for college
At the college and university level student loan funding is split in half; half is managed by the Department of Education directly, called the Federal Direct Student Loan Program (FDSLP). The other half is managed by commercial entities such as banks, credit unions, and financial services firms such as Sallie Mae, under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP). Some schools accept only FFELP loans; others accept only FDSLP. Still others accept both, and a few schools will not accept either, in which case students must seek out private alternatives for student loans.

Charter schools
The charter-school movement was born in 1990. Charter schools have spread rapidly in the United States, members, parents, teachers, and students" to allow for the "expression of diverse teaching philosophies and cultural and social life styles."

Affirmative action
In 2003 a Supreme Court decision concerning affirmative action in universities allowed educational institutions to consider race as a factor in admitting students, but ruled that strict point systems are unconstitutional. Opponents of racial affirmative action argue that the program actually benefits middle- and upper-class people of color at the expense of lower class European Americans and Asian Americans. Prominent African American academics Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier, while favoring affirmative action, have argued that in practice, it has led to recent black immigrants and their children being greatly overrepresented at elite institutions, at the expense of the historic African American community made up of descendants of slaves. In 2006, Jian Li, a Chinese undergraduate at Yale University, filed a civil rights complaint with the Office for Civil Rights against Princeton University, claiming that his race played a role in their decision to reject his application for admission.

There is some debate about where control for education actually lies. Education is not mentioned in the constitution of the United States. In the current situation, the state and national governments have a power-sharing arrangement, with the states exercising most of the control. Like other arrangements between the two, the federal government uses the threat of decreased funding to enforce laws pertaining to education. Furthermore, within each state there are different types of control. Some states have a statewide school system, while others delegate power to county, city or township-level school boards. However, under the Bush administration, initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act have attempted to assert more central control in a heavily decentralized system.

Many cities have their own school boards everywhere in the United States. With the exception of cities, outside the northeast U.S. school boards are generally constituted at the county level.

The U.S. federal government exercises its control through the U.S. Department of Education. Educational accreditation decisions are made by voluntary regional associations. Schools in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, teach in English, while schools in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico teach in Spanish. Nonprofit private schools are widespread, are largely independent of the government, and include secular as well as parochial schools.

International comparison
In the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment 2003, which emphasizes problem solving, American 15 year olds ranked 24th of 38 in mathematics, 19th of 38 in science, 12th of 38 in reading, and 26th of 38 in problem solving. In the 2006 assessment, the U.S. ranked 35th out of 57 in mathematics and 29th out of 57 in science. Reading scores could not be reported due to printing errors in the instructions of the U.S. test booklets. U.S. scores were behind those of most other developed nations.

However, the picture changes when low achievers in the U.S. are broken out by race. White and Asian students in the United States are generally among the best-performing pupils in the world; black and Hispanic students in the U.S. have very high rates of low achievement.

US fourth and eighth graders tested above average on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tests, which emphasizes traditional learning.