Home inFocus Agenda: America (Summer 2024) Should We Have Faith in Our Schools? Yes, Actually.

Should We Have Faith in Our Schools? Yes, Actually.

Garion Frankel Summer 2024

To the casual observer, American schools must be within the deepest section of Plato’s cave — far away from the shining lights of truth, beauty, and justice.

Day after day, parents and educators alike tell stories of students who are no longer able to understand classic texts like The Most Dangerous Game or The Cask of Amontillado, teachers who are legally defenseless against violent and out-of-control students, and districts that would rather spend $20 million on a commercial water park than properly provide math instruction. Although most parents are satisfied with their child’s specific school, only a paltry 16 percent agree that the public school system in general is headed in the right direction.

If one looks at scores on standardized exams, stakeholders are right to be concerned. Reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are the lowest they have been since the early 1970s, undoing decades of progress in boosting student achievement. While some of these declines are undoubtedly the result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s lingering effects, they also point to critical institutional problems within American schools. In short, the kids are not alright — they are very, very not alright.

That said, it is far too early to throw in the towel. In a country with roughly 115,000 schools, there are inevitably going to be families, administrators, teachers, and students doing things right. Rather than simply dismissing these noble efforts as exceptions to the rule of inadequacy, we should celebrate them as exemplars of the virtues many of us want the next generation of children (and their schools) to strive for.

I intend to shine a positive light on some of these innovations, adaptations, or, in some cases, returns to form. Although these developments are, for now, on a relatively small scale, they cover a wide range of methods and subject areas and provide at least some source of hope. I do not intend these highlights to serve as apologetics for American schools — the contrary, if anything — but to show that these large and powerful institutions are still worth fighting for.

The Mississippi Miracle

Mississippi, often dismissed by coastal elites as the most backwater state within the most backwater region of the country, is a seemingly unlikely candidate for an educational renaissance.

Indeed, as recently as 11 years ago, Mississippi had some of the lowest 4th Grade reading scores in the country — particularly for students receiving free or reduced lunches. Among those students, only two states performed significantly worse than Mississippi that year, with a whopping 36 states performing significantly better. The numbers for all students were even worse, as 47 states/jurisdictions had significantly higher reading scores than Mississippi. In other words, the state’s educational prospects were bleak, to say the least.

Nevertheless, what has transpired in Mississippi over the past decade is one of the most remarkable education reform successes in recent history. Whereas Mississippi was one of the worst states for 4th Grade literacy in 2011, it was in the middle of the pack by 2022. For students on free and reduced lunch plans, the results are even more promising — no state performed significantly better than Mississippi in 2022. Considering that an estimated 74 percent of the state’s students rely on free and reduced lunches, this is a major achievement.

How did Mississippi advance so far, so quickly? It embraced the science of reading. In 2013, the state passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act (LBPA), which rooted its reading curriculum in a research-backed model derived from linguistics and cognitive science. In addition, the LBPA offered training and resources to ensure that the model was applied properly, with particularly impoverished schools and districts being given special priority. If a student was unable to read at grade level by the end of 3rd Grade, the state, rather controversially, elected to hold them back.

Call this model what you will — phonics, the science of reading, or whatever else — the LBPA made a dramatic difference in the lives of Mississippi’s students. This is especially important given that the state’s fundamental demographic characteristics did not change in this time frame. In other words, Mississippi is still one of the nation’s most impoverished and disadvantaged states.

Mississippi still has a long way to go, and it has had a difficult time replicating its 4th Grade successes in 8th Grade. Nevertheless, for a country wracked by a literacy crisis, Mississippi shows us that poverty and corruption are not insurmountable barriers to children’s progress in developing necessary skills for citizenship.

A New Life for Arts Education?

For millennia, scholars, families, and philosophers alike have considered the arts and humanities to be a proper, virtuous education’s backbone. Yet despite widespread public support for continued arts education, American children, particularly those living in disadvantaged communities, arguably have less access to the arts in schools than ever before.

Nobody wants to be the person known for cutting arts education programs, but with school budgets floundering and both state and federal accountability metrics prioritizing test scores above all else, cultural enrichment is often first on the chopping block.

But hope may be on the horizon. Researchers are applying rigorous econometric research techniques to give less discussed school programs — drama, art, music, field trips, and more — a second look. Early results, though tepid and preliminary, are rather promising. A liberal education, long seen as instrumental to academic performance, virtue, and/or effective participation in a republican form of government, may accomplish exactly that.

A landmark 2013 study investigating 643 Australian students from 15 schools revealed that students who participated in the arts were more academically-motivated, were more likely to enjoy school, and were more likely to complete their assignments. These students also had higher self-esteem, had a greater sense of meaning and purpose, and were much more satisfied with their lives. In other words, even when controlling for sociodemographics and previous grades, arts participation in school was strongly associated with improved lives.

Scholars have observed similar associations in the United States. A 2020 experiment involving researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of Missouri found that adolescent students who went on a field trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Houston were more likely to support civil liberties, had deeper historical knowledge regarding antisemitism and the Holocaust, and were more likely to donate to organizations promoting tolerance. Simply put, it may be possible, at least in some circumstances, to “educate hate away.”

Obviously, these results should be taken with some caution. The results were overwhelmingly concentrated among students from college-educated households, and some students responded less positively to social tolerance indicators after the experiment. But in an age where many schools have become platforms for hatred and critical race theory, any improvements in tolerance or support for civil liberties are heartening.

The arts may not be a silver bullet that will alleviate all our educational woes. But, where schools diligently and faithfully implement them, they may have a noteworthy impact on student achievement, student wellbeing, and our civil society as a whole.

School Choice and Public Schools

In March, Alabama became the 11th state to pass universal education savings accounts (ESAs), which allocate public funds for families to use on private school tuition, supplies and materials, additional tutoring and services, homeschool, and, in some states, technology and transportation.

It has quickly become apparent that ESAs are — rightfully — the policy tool of choice for school choice advocates and broader education reformers alike. They offer the most bang for taxpayer buck in durability, flexibility, and educational innovation. Moreover, no matter how good the public schools are in any area, a one-size-fits-all approach can never adequately meet every family’s unique needs.

What often gets lost in the hoopla surrounding private school choice, however, is that school choice can and increasingly does exist for public schools as well. Far from destroying the public school system in its entirety, the school choice movement stands to instead incentivize public education to compete (in the Adam Smith sense), to innovate, and to directly respond to the interests and needs of the families they serve. Considering American education’s perpetual reluctance to embrace new ideas or challenge established ed-school orthodoxies, this shock to the system should be very much welcome.

Many states, including Arizona, Arkansas, and West Virginia, that have passed universal educational savings accounts, are partnering private school choice with universal open enrollment, which allows public school students to freely transfer within and between districts. Not only might these policies save public schools that might otherwise close due to declining student enrollment, but they may also boost academic performance and force district operating budgets to become more efficient. Both taxpayers and students win in this scenario.

But even private school choice programs in and of themselves have positive effects on the surrounding public schools. When public schools are faced with new and innovative competition from private schools, they have a clear incentive to improve themselves to avoid losing students. While these improvements are not necessarily game-changers in and of themselves, there is a developing body of literature indicating that these incentives translate into increased achievement among students who remain loyal to public schools.

The advancement of public and private school choice programs alike should generate meaningful, if modest, improvements to American schools in general. If nothing else, the literature is increasingly clear that expanding educational freedom in no way obliterates the public school system.

The Potential for Merit Pay

In 2015, the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) in Texas introduced a radical new teacher salary schedule, called the Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI). Rather than paying teachers the traditional way — based on how many degrees and years of classroom experience they had — Dallas implemented a complicated formula that would instead pay teachers based on their evaluation scores.

The program was immediately controversial. Though teachers’ unions in Texas lack formal collective bargaining power and are unable to strike, they are still capable of causing quite the ruckus when motivated. They contended that the TEI was unfair to experienced, well-credentialed teachers, and that the policy would not only fail to move the needle on student achievement but also drive good teachers away from DISD entirely.

The unions appear to have been wrong on both counts. As of early 2020, DISD has retained 100 percent of its “master-level” teachers (some of whom earn six- figure salaries) and 93 percent of its slightly-lower “Proficient II” level teachers. There has been little evidence of a mass exodus of teachers from DISD, and those teachers who have left are generally those who had not been performing nearly as well. In other words, when you pay good teachers more, it encourages them to stay in the district.

In addition, the TEI does seem to have moved the needle on student achievement. A 2023 working paper noted that DISD experienced consistent improvements in its math and reading scores between 2015 and 2019 — far more than a synthetic control district – not a formal district – without the TEI experienced in the same timeframe.

Considering that Dallas is an urban district with many disadvantaged students, these consistent improvements are noteworthy and to some extent remarkable.

Texas is working to scale the TEI statewide. In 2019, the Texas Legislature created the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) to reward effective teachers in high-need or rural areas with dramatically higher salaries. Although there is not yet quality data regarding TIA outcomes, the high-quality administrators and principals I study alongside at Texas A&M are constantly clamoring for TIA recognition in their districts. If there wasn’t something to it, they would not be so motivated.

There are many challenges to merit pay programs, and they may be impossible to implement in areas where teachers’ unions have a great deal of formal power. Nevertheless, despite their unpopularity with some groups,  they do seem to generate results. At the very least, they give parents and advocates something else to fight for.


The state of American education is collectively bleak. Around the country, kids struggle to read, the types of values needed for effective participation in a liberal democracy are on the decline, and widespread social media use has been a nightmare for discipline and behavior.

Despite these trials and tribulations, however, there are still reasons for optimism about American schools. Mississippi has shown that an effective, phonics-based literacy curriculum can overcome great socioeconomic challenges. The arts community has used rigorous research to prove that there is a clear place for them in public education. The school choice movement will stimulate competition within public school districts, and between public and private schools, both of which may stimulate improvements. And Dallas has paved the way for effective merit pay programs despite union opposition.

The road ahead will be challenging,  but the nation may yet still reap rewards. The path is lit. It is on the rest of us to follow it.

Garion Frankel is a Ph.D. student in PK-12 educational leadership at Texas A&M University. He also has forthcoming academic publications in the Independent Review and the Journal of School Choice.