Thursday, April 14, 2005

Column 27: Education - Part 2

Throughout the history of the United States there has been a significant strain of distrust and low regard for education. The “self-made man,” who overcame a lack of education to become successful has been held as more worthy of respect than the person with an education, particularly a classical education, and all the more so if the educated person came from an upper- or upper-middle class background. Abraham Lincoln, studying on a slate by firelight and barely finishing a secondary education is the paragon of the American dream, while university president Woodrow Wilson is seen as somewhat effete and having had his head in the clouds.
One result of this ambivalent attitude is that we salute the importance of education while refusing to pay teachers a decent wage, cutting school programs to the bone, eliminating those aspects of education that go to the whole person (music, art, physical education) and demanding of our educators that they do much more with much less.
Governments at the national, state, and local level have passed high-sounding legislation and then failed to fund its implementation, and band-aid solutions are used where surgery is needed. Nowhere is this clearer than in the argument over class size, where low student-to-teacher ratios are mandated by the Federal Government as well as by at least 24 states that have established mandates, grant programs or other financial incentives to lower class size. In 1999 the Clinton Administration allocated funds with a goal of helping districts hire 100,000 new teachers. The Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act has incorporated the federal class-size-reduction program into a block grant program to improve teacher quality, but this act is notoriously under funded.
Now, as the economy has receded from 1999 levels, critics of education spending have demanded proof that class size reductions have worked. While data in this area are hard to come by, a couple of things are clear. First, there is strong evidence, particularly from the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio project in Tennessee and the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program in Wisconsin that students in the K-3 years whose classes are smaller do better throughout their education, even after going into larger classes from 4th grade on. Data on the effectiveness of smaller classes in upper grades is inconclusive, and conservative critics have seized on this as proof that class-size reductions do not make any difference.
What is ignored in the conservatives’ argument is the way the reductions were done. When the economy was booming in the latter half of the nineties, states such as California had lots of money to hire teachers and reduced class size on a wholesale basis, to the point where there were not enough teachers to fill the slots and uncertified, and sometimes unqualified teachers were hired. Small wonder that improvement was not seen when the overall quality of instruction went down as class size was reduced. As the economy receded there were fewer funds available, and qualified teachers who left were replaced by more unqualified or less-qualified staff.
What is missing here is some intelligent appreciation that education is a system. When you intervene in a system, what you do has not only local but also global impact. If you reduce class size without making sure there are enough qualified teachers to fill the need you have created, it should come as no surprise that you don’t get the results you wanted. If you mandate smaller classes and don’t fund those mandates, it should be no surprise that, when the mandates are implemented on a shoestring, they do not produce results. This reflects a predilection on conservatives’ part toward establishing high-sounding programs, under funding them, and then pointing to the failure as proof that “liberal” solutions don’t work.
It is time we learned that “the future depends on education” is not merely a truism or a slogan. It is a harsh truth – the future of the United States will depend on the luck of finding more Lincolns or the commitment to educate more Wilsons, Eisenhowers, Kennedys, and yes, even Bushes.

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