The Three R's and The Big P
Are political solutions getting good grades or flunking in the classroom?
The April shootings at Columbine High School horrified the nation, but it isn't the risk of violence that has most parents fretting this month as their kids head back to school. More pressing are the everyday questions asked at this time of year by every mom and dad: Will the kids learn to read and write? To do their math properly? Are classes too large? Is prekindergarten a good idea? How can teachers and schools be made more accountable?
Most Americans find the answers less comforting than ever. "When you ask people what's the most important issue heading into the year 2000, education is at the top of the list," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who notes that more than half of Americans under 50 rate the decline in the schools as the country's most important problem. Adds political scientist William Galston of the University of Maryland, a former adviser to President Clinton: "One of the big things that has happened in the past decade is that parents at every socioeconomic level feel that a quality education will improve a child's life chances. That's a big change in the culture, and the change is now shaping the debate."
Next month, Congress will take that debate to a new level as it considers a mammoth five-year education bill. And all the presidential candidates are jumping on the education bandwagon. Both front runners--Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas--say one of their top priorities is to dramatically improve the nation's schools.
Early start. To that end, Gore is promoting a lengthy list of reforms, including block grants for the states to provide universal access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. (Gore says he will come up with a cost estimate later.) He is also promoting the Clinton administration's initiative to reduce class size by helping schools hire 100,000 new teachers, as well as a proposal to encourage, but not force, states to require all teachers to pass performance evaluations to retain their teaching credentials.
For his part, Bush understands that voters won't accept a presidential candidate who treats education as someone else's problem, as congressional Republicans have seemed to do in recent years. So the governor will point to his Texas record of expanding an accountability system in which reading and other curriculum standards are set by the state and all students are assessed by their performance in a standardized exam called the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. This trend toward imposing rigorous statewide standards, reinforced by testing, is probably the hottest trend in education today, although Bush has yet to explain how his Texas-size ideas would apply at the federal level.
The trouble is that while all these notions sound great, they often fail to live up to the hype. Here is a U.S. News reality check on three of the most popular education initiatives across the country:
Class size. California has been trying to reduce class size for three years, and 92 percent of the state's schools have now adopted a limit of 20 students to one teacher in kindergarten through third grade. Up until now, California has spent more than $4 billion on class-size reduction, making it the most expensive education reform in state history.