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.
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."
Yet critics argue that pre-K programs actually hurt young children by taking them out of the home--where some say they learn best--too soon. In addition, even proponents point out that only children with few resources really benefit from pre-K. "For middle-class youngsters with a good economic basis, most programs are not able to show much in the way of difference," says David Weikart, president of High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich.
Yet, as with the smaller-class initiative in California, many parents are eager to give such programs a try. "I would have slept out for a week to get a slot for my kids," says Dede McClure, who paid big bucks for her two children to attend preschool in California before moving to D.C. six years ago.
Testing and accountability. At Casis Elementary in affluent West Austin, Texas, Principal Barry Aidman runs a school with an impressive academic history. And Casis has put together an excellent record in Texas's testing and accountability system, even though Aidman admits the system has its flaws. The state's initiatives are "useful tools," Aidman says, "but the data they give us only tell part of the story" because they don't measure important traits like self-esteem, academic basics such as knowledge of science, or student performance prior to the third grade, when many kids need the most help.
Yet the skills tests represent only one component of Texas's accountability system. Schools also must meet goals for dropout prevention and daily attendance, and performance standards for minority groups, poor students, non-English speakers, and special-education students. Based on those criteria, all schools receive a state rating: exemplary, recognized, acceptable, or low-performing.
True tests? Some critics say the tests are too easy. Others argue that educators "teach to the test" so students do well on the exams but don't master the normal curriculum. Says Betsy Davis, a fourth-grade teacher at Casis, "When this past legislature decided to have a separate test for each area [such as social studies, science, and history]--not just reading, writing, and math, the result is that you have a lot of knowledge tests, but you don't necessarily teach what's important."
Yet the Texas system has strong proponents. Across town from Casis, Principal Claudia Santamaria of T.A. Brown Elementary says the accountability and testing regimen has helped improve her once low-performing school. "Without accountability," says Santamaria, "we would have been in deep, deep trouble." Fourth-grade teacher Michele Trevino adds: "The program gives us a way to assess how our kids are doing. We have a running record of their progress, which means I can offer more individualized instruction."
And in quantitative terms, the system seems to be at least a modest success, as Texas students have performed increasingly well in recent years. Eighty-six percent of third graders passed the reading exam in 1999, for example, compared with only 77 percent in 1994.
Such an outcome may not impress education experts, but it looks like progress to a growing number of parents across the state.
Some hot topics in education
As parental concerns about schools rise, reform efforts are growing. Among the trends:
Universal preschools. Many parents think preschool programs give their kids a head start in life, and the idea is catching on. Vice President Gore is proposing a big new federal program to make preschool available to every 3- and 4-year-old.
Class size. Limiting the size of classes lets teachers pay more attention to individual students and often helps kids excel. Reducing class size has become the most costly education reform in California history, but the results, while promising, have been mixed.
Testing and accountability. Many educators favor setting rigorous academic standards at the state level, regularly testing kids on their reading, math, and other skills, then evaluating schools on the basis of students' performance. That's a key approach of Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
With Betsy Streisand, Carolyn Kleiner and Joe Holley
This story appears in the August 30, 1999 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.