The Dayton Business Journal recently unveiled its rankings of the top 77 school districts in the area. Districts were given scores and ranked accordingly. Topping the list was Oakwood while Dayton Public Schools ranked last.
While the results are hardly surprising, the underlying causes attributed to the relative positions of the districts vary considerably, and they tend to take on political shades.
Perhaps an oversimplification, but the general diagnosis of educational problems boils down to money and resources for Democrats and competition and accountability for Republicans, with some degree of consensus on all counts save voucher programs. Accordingly, spending on education, measured as cost per pupil, has increased dramatically over the years and never seems to decline. Meanwhile, various states have implemented voucher programs to allow students to choose different schools and accountability measures to grade educators.
Such positions would not exist without some validity, but none are silver bullet solutions. Taken together, these popular political solutions miss the boat, perhaps entirely. Despite doubling per pupil spending, building new schools, offering vouchers, and grading teachers and districts, test scores (a flawed measure, at that) have stagnated. Put another way, the favorite policy solutions are not improving education outcomes.
Still, there are rankings such as those published in the Dayton Business Journal—rankings that show winners and losers, regardless of how they are quantified. A look at basic demographic information in these districts is revealing.
Taking three of top and three of the bottom districts—omitting smaller districts like Fort Loramie—and comparing demographic data shows disparities in unsurprising areas; however, these disparities quite possibly account for the differences in educational outcomes.
Here, we have compared three larger districts at the top—Oakwood, Mason, and Bellbrook-Sugarcreek—to three larger districts ranked at the bottom—Dayton, Trotwood-Madison, and Jefferson Township. Data compared includes the percentage of the population with high school and 4-year college degrees, home ownership, marriage, poverty, single parent households, and crime rates.
First, the populations of the top districts are far more educated than those of the lower districts. Nearly all residents of Oakwood, Mason, and Bellbrook-Sugarcreek graduated at least from high school (98%, 95%, and 96%, respectively). This is compared with Dayton, Trotwood-Madison, and Jefferson Township, all between 81% and 83%. If this difference seems trivial, then the percentage of residents holding a four-year college degree will not: 70% in Oakwood, 53% in Mason, 39% in Bellbrook-Sugarcreek. Each of the lowest ranking districts is between 14% and 16%.
Second, the top districts have home ownership rates around 80% while the lower districts are closer to 50%. An unsurprising tandem statistic here is poverty: In Dayton, Trotwood-Madison, and Jefferson Township districts, 33%, 17%, and 29% of residents live in poverty, respectively, compared to 8% or less in the top districts. Add crime to the equation and one will find a remarkable disparity there, as well.
Last and most importantly is household makeup. Single parent households with children are twice as common in the lower districts while married households with children are twice as common in the top districts. Human beings are arguably “wired” to be raised by a mother and a father. Put another way, parenting is a two-person job, despite the heroics of most single parents. Children raised in married households tend to have better life outcomes—education, economic, etc.—than their counterparts raised in single parent homes.
It seems that the true disparity lies here, and not in per pupil spending (which tends to be much, much higher in districts with higher percentages of single parent households), classroom size, school choice, or accountability regimes. Still, the onus is placed on state and federal governments, which continue to fail to deliver on regular promises, and on teachers, who are fairly uniform across the board in their state-mandated credentials.
Since more money has not solved the problem, and making prospective teachers complete longer lists of requirements to enter and remain in the profession, while results have remained level, then these are not the solutions. In reality, the problem with education is cultural, and no politician will tackle that. After all, it is much easier to go after bureaucrats, and educators, because they are fewer in number than parents.
One other point: Headlines often decry the sorry state of education in the United States as a whole, but the whole consists of many parts. One will find many public school districts where parents are extremely happy, their children learning and moving on to productive lives. Then the are districts that get the news stories: those with parents who feel trapped and whose children seem almost hopeless. So it’s not the entire system that is in peril, but rather those where cultural behaviors emplace unnecessary impediments in the way a child’s success. There is probably no way to remedy the situation with policy.