New Ideas Take Root in Public-School Reform

By Steidler, Paul F. | Insight on the News, September 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

New Ideas Take Root in Public-School Reform


Steidler, Paul F., Insight on the News


A mid the well-justified concerns about the quality of America's education system is ample reason for optimism. In recent years, there has been a renaissance in America's private schools and other encouraging developments for those who are seeking alternatives to the conventional public-school system. Perhaps most importantly, these developments are helping to drive solutions in the public-school system which today serves more than 46 million children. The 26,000 private elementary and secondary schools in the country serve appr-oximately 4.9 million students.

First, it should be noted that there indeed is a crisis in many of our public schools just as there was 14 years ago when the seminal report, A Nation at Risk, warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity." Today, the tide remains high.

The 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, found that nearly one-third of all students were not able to do basic grade-level mathematics work. In eighth-grade math tests conducted in 1994-95 U.S. students recorded below-average results, trailing countries such as Singapore, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Austria, France, Hungary, Russia, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Thailand and many others.

Scholastic Assessment Tests scores also have stagnated. The combined score for the 1994-95 school year, 910, represented an increase of less than 2 percent from the 1982-83 score of 893 and remained 5 percent lower than 1967-68, when the average score totaled 958.

The current problems are not for a lack of financial commitment, however. In inflation-adjusted terms, the average expenditure per public-school student nearly had doubled in 1994-95 to $6,933, up from $3,579 in 1967-68.

Yet, since 1967-68, teacher pay has increased only 12 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. Where has the other money gone? A good part has been funneled into administration. In fact, the number of nonteaching personnel at public schools has increased from 386,360 in 1949-50 to 2,355,797 in 1994, a 609 percent increase.

Rather than just spending more money, what are some true improvements that have been tried and tested?

* Parochial Schools: America's Catholic schools, where the average tuition is under $2,200 annually, have seen steady growth since 1990. More than 2.6 million children now attend these elementary and secondary institutions. For the past 15 years researchers have documented these schools' successes with minority and disadvantaged students.

Recently, Derek Neal, an associate professor in economics at the University of Chicago, reported that the probability that inner-city students would graduate from high school increased from 62 percent to at least 88 percent when those students were placed in a Catholic secondary school. William Sander of the DePaul University Department of Economics reported that non-Catholics benefit the attending a Catholic grade school.

According to the National Catholic Education Association, the percentage of minorities in Catholic schools has more than doubled since 1970-71 and now stands at more than 24 percent. In 1995-96, non-catholics represented more than 13 percent of Catholic-school enrollment. Yet, at many inner-city schools, non-Catholics comprise up to 90 percent of the student body.

* Home Schooling. The number of students being home schooled now totals 1.23 million, according to the National Home Education Research Institute (see "No Place (to Learn) Like Home School," page 12). A recent report by the institute found that home schoolers score 30 to 37 percentage points higher than their public-school counterparts in reading, math, science, language and social studies. Minorities, which comprise about 5 percent of home-schooled students, also performed much better than minority children educated in the public schools.

* Charter Schools: These are public schools designed to be free of government and teachers-union rules and regulations. …

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