The nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education has shone a fresh light on charter schools as a vehicle to raise student achievement and improve chronically low-performing schools. While research suggests they may well deliver such goods, it has also found that the students most in need of making a choice to attend a better school — low-achieving and low-income students — are the least likely to do so.
But this burst of attention on charter schools poses a risk that a host of other national education issues — some more important than charter schools, frankly — will be ignored.
Take child care. It's been known for years that some children begin school behind their peers and catching them up takes herculean effort. More and better child care options could help. RAND research suggests that for every dollar invested in high-quality child care, society reaps $2 to $17 via lower rates of special education use, reduced grade repetition, and higher rates of high school graduation.
The burst of attention on charter schools poses a risk that other national education issues will be ignored.
But this is hardly at the top of the education policy agenda. We are not having a conversation about how to ease difficulties in braiding together federal, state and local funding sources for higher-quality child care. Until we provide a better start for kids we will never reach the goal of making America's education system great.
Or consider teacher support. There isn't much. In my own research with RAND's American Teacher Panel, a nationally representative group, more than 90 percent of teachers report developing their own teaching materials. Many rely on Google and Pinterest to figure it out. They also report a keen need for professional development, especially to help differentiate instruction to meet students' needs. It's not only teachers: Most principals also report they aren't getting the regular supervisory communication, mentoring or professional development they need.
Charter schools only serve 5 percent of the nation's students. Even with a vast expansion in high-quality charters in the coming years, it's not likely to improve the quality of education at the scale that investing in supports for better teaching could. If we cannot help educators improve then we will not be able to make America's education system great.
Finally, let's not forget workforce development. Making sure all students leave school prepared for careers would surely reap economic benefits beyond what charter schools could produce.
Understanding the types of emerging jobs in different regions, the preparation necessary for those jobs, and the alignment between current education offerings and those needs are key. Our research in the Appalachian region identified significant misalignment between jobs available and educational opportunities.
What's more, the focus on making everyone college-ready has meant students most in need of good careers may have chosen to attend mediocre colleges that leave them too much debt and too few career prospects. Identifying the educational requirements of economically viable careers and preparing students — in school — for those careers would have significant economic and social impacts. America's education system cannot be great until it is able to ensure the economic futures of its students.
Don't get me wrong. Charter schools could become an important element of a great education system. For that to happen, more attention needs to be paid to how we ensure students choose the best schools possible.
But even then, charter schools may only play a small part in the reform agenda. Federal and local education officials — and certainly DeVos, if she is confirmed — should keep their eyes on the things that could have even bigger payoffs in making America's education system great.
V. Darleen Opfer is Director of RAND Education and the Distinguished Chair in Education at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Dallas Morning News on December 9, 2016. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.