The Three R's and The Big P
Are political solutions getting good grades or flunking in the classroom?
But so far, the academic payoff hasn't been nearly as impressive as the price tag. A state study conducted by the Rand Corp. found that 34 percent of third graders who attended smaller classes scored above the national average in reading on 1998 standardized tests, compared with 32 percent in larger classes--only a marginal difference. In math, 38 percent scored better than average, compared with 35 percent in larger classes.
And reducing class size has created huge space problems and teacher shortages. Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, which has more than 2,200 students, eliminated sixth grade entirely because it ran out of space for classrooms. And playground space has been forfeited permanently to make way for new buildings.
Yet these were minor concerns compared with the most dramatic consequence of the 20-to-1 rule: escalation of an existing teacher crisis into a state emergency. Before class size reduction, only 1 percent of teachers in grades K-3 lacked credentials. Last year, the number of teachers with emergency credentials, which are available practically for the asking and require no previous teaching experience, had climbed to 12 percent and is expected to be even higher when school starts this year. "We're practically running a mini-teachers' college here," says Jim Messrah, Hobart's principal. In addition to mandatory mentoring programs, Hobart offers new teachers additional instruction on everything from how to create a lesson plan to how to control a class. "They need help with almost everything," says veteran teacher Mary-Lou Viger, head of Hobart's mentoring program. "If we were to leave them alone, they'd never make it."
Predictably, the problem of inexperienced teachers is greatest in the most troubled school districts. Because the competition for experienced teachers is so great, schools in poor urban areas have 10 times more uncredentialed teachers than those in more affluent districts.
Despite the problems, however, reduced class size remains extremely popular among parents. And any candidate who dares speak against it can expect a quick political demise.
Preschool. On a chilly afternoon last April, John Jensen grabbed his sleeping bag and headed out for Lafayette Elementary School in a tony section of Washington, D.C. His overnight adventure wasn't designed to get tickets to a rock concert or a playoff game but to ensure that his 3-year-old daughter got into Lafayette's prekindergarten program. By 6 p.m. on the night before registration, there were already more than 20 parents lined up outside the public school, some with tents or wine and cheese, and all eager to snag one of 40 spots in the all-day program.
Forty-two states spent a total of nearly $1.7 billion on prekindergarten initiatives in the 1998-99 school year. But only Georgia funds pre-K for every child whose family wants him or her to participate, as Gore wants to do for the nation. Research shows that prekindergarten programs can have a positive impact on educational performance, social responsibility, and even income levels later in life, particularly among students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Parents favor universal preschool for different reasons. "For some, it's free babysitting," says Delabian Rice-Thurston, head of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, an education advocacy group. For others, it enhances a child's personal development. "This is a critical time to learn how to solve problems and to interact with others," says Sherry Howard of Atlanta, whose son, Zachary, 5, just finished a year of pre-K. "The biggest thing I've noticed is how he's able to make his own decisions now. He's become very independent."