For the past half-century, and particularly since the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report, Americans have been heaving great sacks of money at schools. Federal spending alone has tripled since the 1970s. The New York Times calculates that the federal government now spends $107.6 billion on education yearly, which is layered over an estimated $524.7 billion spent by states and localities. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics.)
Reformers have urged — depending upon where they stand ideologically — smaller class sizes, more accountability, merit pay for teachers, and educational choice. Each year seems to bring a new fad: child-centered learning; new math; cooperative learning; and so forth. The No Child Left Behind reform focused on testing. There have been proposals to repeal teacher tenure and to provide every child with a laptop. And always there are fights over curriculum — the Common Core being the controversy du jour.
But perhaps the most promising thinking about education arises from the discovery of economist Erik Hanushek that the most important factor in student performance is the quality of the teacher. Not class size. Not spending per pupil. Not even curriculum.