The Education Precedent: School Reform Flunks Its History Test

Article excerpt

It's time to paraphrase George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeatedly pay for failed education reforms. Today, every elected official in the country - from the president to mosquito-abatement district representatives - is stumping for strict "national standards" and billions to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes.

There's a growing consensus that now is the time to make the down payment on such unprecedented measures. The result, we're told, will be better schools and smarter kids who will do their parents proud (and who will make enough money to support them in their old age).

One question: What happened last time? In his 1990 State of the Union address, self-described "Education President" George Bush pledged that "national standards" would push our students into the next century with maximum academic momentum.

What kind of results spewed from this grand fountain of enlightened public policy? "Almost 10 years ago, President George Bush and the state governors set goals aimed at preparing all the nation's children to improve their achievement in core subjects and outpace the world in at least math and science by 2000," reported Education Week recently. "With one year remaining, the prospects of reaching those goals...appear practically nil."

Of course this time will be entirely different, right? But let's think for just a moment about hiring 100,000 additional public school teachers, the proudest pedagogical boast of last year's federal budgeteers. In 1994-95, the latest year for which the Census Bureau Web site posts such numbers, there were 3,763,312 elementary and secondary public school instructors on the payroll, serving some 44,111,482 students. That breaks down to a nationwide student/teacher ratio of 11.7. Dumping 100,000 new instructors into the mix brings the ratio all the way down to 11.4.

It seems safe to assume that not all instructors on payroll end up in the classroom, so the true student/teacher ratio is, in all reality, much higher. Fair enough. The 11.7 figure sounds low to me, too (let's just skip the potentially embarrassing question as to where those non-classroom instructors are hiding).

Let's figure that only half of all paid teachers make it to class. That means adding 100,000 new teachers lowers the average class from 23.4 to 22.8. And that's with the heroic assumption that we get 100 percent of the new teachers actually into the classroom.

What learning improvements will follow from diminishing the average class size by three-fifths of a student? …