It has become widely accepted that academic achievement is directly linked to future economic competitiveness. Policy makers, school administrators, politicians and the general public have been led to believe that the United States’ educational system is broken and that urgent reform is needed in order to keep the country’s competitive edge and ensure that this nation will continue to be a world leader (Spellings, 2007). But the data on which these conclusions are based do not seem to strongly support this view (Baker & LeTendre, 2005). While academic competitiveness may not necessarily be essential for future economic competitiveness, it is important because it improves the overall quality of teaching and learning. Among the several measures available to leaders to improve the academic competitiveness of their students, three are particularly important: special attention given to underperforming schools and students, more equal distribution of resources to schools, and economic growth.
Special Attention Given To Underperforming Schools And Students
The old adage, “The chain is only as strong as its weakest link” is particularly true in education. A country may have the best school in the world, but when test averages are taken and the whole system is included in the mix, national scores will be much lower if the underperforming schools are about to break. In order to address academic competitiveness within and across nations, special attention must be given to underperforming schools and students.
It can be very tempting for a nation to focus its attention on its high-scoring, over-achieving students and schools, holding them up as models to be emulated by other schools. In a sense, schools do need models that can serve as inspiration for the betterment of procedures and practices; but this special attention cannot and should not serve to perpetuate the status quo. Schools that score higher in tests or provide a better educational experience are usually the exception and not the rule, and as such should challenge the entire system to meet the goal of improving what is not working well, not necessarily expecting emulation but instead the learning from their experiences and striving to be better.
Underperforming schools may need not only inspiration, but also additional funding and direction (McQuillan & Salomon-Fernandez, 2008). The weakest links in school systems are usually underfunded schools that are struggling to keep their doors open and to hire quality teachers. While special care must be taken not to fall into the trap of simply throwing more money into the problem, many schools could really use financial assistance either from local, state or federal governments. But additional funding may not be all the school needs; due to the scarce resources available, underfunded schools usually have difficulty in acquiring high caliber talent that could assist them in charting a course for success and implementing it. This is where partnerships with other schools, non-profits and world educational agencies can really help local schools to succeed—and this leads us directly to another step in improving academic competitiveness: more equal distribution of resources to schools.
More Equal Distribution Of Resources To Schools
The theme of equal distribution of resources to schools is a controversial one in the United States because this country has one of the most decentralized (if not the most decentralized) school system in the world. This school system is largely funded by local taxes based primarily on property taxes. Since these taxes are linked to income (assuming that larger, more expensive homes are owned by families of higher income levels), schools located in more affluent areas will tend to have more resources available to them because tax-generated funds will be more abundant. Family donations of supplies and other resources are also linked to local income levels, and will tend to be more frequent and of higher dollar amount than in schools located in poorer areas.
The American system has many advantages, including that of greater accountability of local schools to the local population. However, by basing school funding on local taxes, gaps in funding are compounded year after year as richer schools get more resources and poorer schools continue to get less. This gap can lead to a visible difference in the quality of school installations, supplies available to teachers, and even the quality of the teachers themselves. All of these factors affect the quality of instruction and the ability of students to learn in a welcoming environment.
Should the federal government then centralize the educational system, collect local taxes and redistribute them appropriately? In highly centralized school systems, such as that of France, the federal government funds the local schools and is able to ensure a more equal distribution of resources. Schools are expected to receive the same funding based on the number of students and the costs associated with running the school. But this centralization does not necessarily translate into improved academic competitiveness. France suffers from a bloated bureaucracy in the Ministy of Education that spends a large percentage of its funds to maintain its over one million employees (Baker & LeTendre, 2005). In this case, accountability has become increasingly difficult, and local populations or local governments have lost their voice in the process of funds distribution.
It would appear that equal distribution of resources is not necessarily going to help schools in the long run because of the increased costs and decreased accountability that such a process would entail. Instead, there should be an effort to make resource distribution more equal than it is now, allowing schools to have similar opportunities for improvement of their facilities and human resources, and giving underperforming and underfunded schools motivation to improve the quality of outcomes (Savasci & Tomul, 2013). Funding for a more equal distribution has to come from economic growth that generates wealth.
It is easy to say that we need more funds to be directed to education and that we need to fund our schools better. However, where will these funds come from? As learned from recent experiences in the United States, deficit borrowing can lead to devastating consequences in the long-term; and because academic competitiveness is a long-term endeavor, nations should find alternative ways to fund their educational efforts. One of the obvious and most logical way to do so is through economic growth.
Economic growth, if implemented correctly, generates wealth that can be used for investment. Economic growth is not necessarily equal across all sectors of the population, but when the nation becomes richer, the mean income tends to rise and the overall population benefits from the newly generated resources. According to Baker and LeTendre (2005), one of the few factors that are clearly identifiable as having a direct impact on national academic competitiveness is wealth: richer countries tend to perform better than poorer ones. Surely this is not a direct relationship of “more money = better scores,” but rather of what benefits are the result of having more financial resources available in the country as a whole. I lived overseas for many years, and one thing I witness every time I travel abroad is how different poverty in the United States is from other countries. What is considered poverty here in the United States sometimes could be argued as being reasonable living conditions for a Brazilian from certain regions in that country or for someone in Ghana, for example (Chowa, Masa, Wretman, & Ansong, 2013). Poverty is relative not only between nations but in historical terms as well—what is considered poverty today may have been considered good living conditions a thousand years ago.
So how does economic growth factor into the academic achievement equation? By having more resources available, the standard of living of the population as whole—despite its inequalities and injustices—will rise and allow for a better living experience that can be translated into a better learning experience. For instance, more leisure (non-work) time can afford students more study time. If students don’t have to work to help support their families, they can instead focus on behaving their age and doing better in school. Economic growth, when done responsibly (generating wealth that brings up the nation’s standard of living), can have a long-lasting impact on academic achievement.
There is no single factor or measure that can improve a nation’s academic achievement. There are several things a country can do to try to improve its scores, but a combination of them is more likely to work. A more equal distribution of resources by itself does not necessarily translate into more equal test scores; special attention given to underperforming schools or students may not necessarily lead to their improvement and could even cost the country a decrease in the performance of the best schools in the system; and economic growth by itself can result in increased inequalities and a perception of deeper poverty that can lead to lower academic achievement.
If a country wishes to improve its academic achievement, the best course of action is for it to devise a plan that incorporates many measures that seek to improve quality of life and the learning experience, providing resources that are more equally available, and giving special support to the “weakest links.” This kind of plan takes time and resources to implement, and should be done in a way that the population embraces and that is democratic in its form and function. This democratic ethos will be reflected in a decentralized and inclusive decision-making process that embraces the various ideas, structures and aspirations of local populations, but that also includes overall direction and support by the nation’s leaders to help ensure that the country’s achievement targets are in line with global needs and demands. This is what Baker and LeTendre (2005) called, “centralized decentralization” (p. 135).
Baker, D., & LeTendre, G. (2005). National differences, global similarities: World culture and the future of schooling. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Chowa, G., Masa, R., Wretman, C., & Ansong, D. (2013). The impact of household possessions on youth’s academic achievement in the Ghana YouthSave experiment: A propensity score analysis. Economics Of Education Review, 33, 69-81.
McQuillan, P., & Salomon-Fernandez, Y. (2008). The impact of state intervention on “underperforming” schools in Massachusetts: Implications for policy and practice. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 16(18), 1-40.
Savasci, H., & Tomul, E. (2013). The relationship between educational resources of school and academic achievement. International Education Studies, 6(4), 114-123. doi:10.5539/ies.v6n4p114
Spellings, M. (2007). Report of the Academic Competitiveness Council. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.