Matthew Ladner

Rodel reforms are old wine

Posted on February 08, 2005 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Matthew Ladner
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The Arizona Republic of Jan. 30 praised a vision for education reform called "Lead With Five," the child of the Rodel Foundation. The Republic's coverage included a front-page story, a condensed version of the report and an editorial in Viewpoints.

The report concludes, "If all the programs and initiatives proposed in this report were undertaken, it would be reasonable to expect student performance to double within 10 years."

Such a dramatic improvement in student performance may sound too good to be true. Perhaps because it would be.

The Rodel report points to the relatively poor performance of Arizona public schools in comparison with other states and warns of the dire need to improve the education system. However, most of the reforms the report proposes have been tried before, and failed.

For example, the report calls for $1,883 in new per-student spending, stating that "the debate goes on (over whether increased spending improves student achievement), funding stays the same and student performance does not increase enough to satisfy anybody."

Such wording is a clever attempt at agnosticism on the relationship between public school inputs and outputs, but it simply does not square with the history of public education.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that in inflation-adjusted dollars, per-pupil spending in American public schools has more than tripled since 1959. During that same period, standardized test scores have declined.

The five reforms in the Rodel report are unlikely to reverse this trend.

Take class-size reduction, which The Republic endorses. From 1955 to 1995, student/teacher ratios fell nearly 44 percent, to 15 students per teacher from 26.6. Mysteriously, student performance dropped right along with them.

The "Coleman Report" in the late 1960s was first to document the lack of a relationship between average public school class size and student performance. Since, researchers have replicated the finding repeatedly with both domestic and international data.

Although smaller class sizes are popular and intuitively appealing, research demonstrates that smaller classes, which require more teachers, lead to a reduction in average teacher quality, negating any benefit.

Ample evidence has shown that a contest between teacher quality and smaller class size is in fact no contest: Your child is much better off in a crowded classroom with a talented teacher than in a smaller class with a mediocre instructor.

The best available research suggests the exact opposite of what The Republic endorses: The system should be doing whatever it can to establish the most effective teachers and give as many students as possible the chance to learn from them.

The report also endorsed all-day kindergarten, a favorite education reform of Gov. Janet Napolitano. The "Lead With Five" report chooses its words carefully: "Children who attend full-day kindergarten do better in lower elementary grades."

Here's why the words were chosen so carefully: Researchers have established repeatedly that the effects of early-education programs fade in the elementary years and have no impact on graduation rates.

Most recently, the National Center for Education Statistics assessed 22,000 children nationwide and found no difference in achievement between students who attended part- or full-day programs by third grade. "Third-grade reading, mathematics and science achievement did not differ substantively by children's sex or kindergarten program type."

In any case, Arizona has widely available kindergarten programs, financed with local resources. Designated state funding simply would allow districts to shift funds to other purposes.

Fortunately, the Rodel report gets one critical fact right: "More money spent on ineffective strategies will not improve student performance."

Indeed.

The Rodel report largely ignored the most promising reform: school choice. For example, in Milwaukee, where low-income students are eligible for vouchers to attend private schools, public schools improved their fourth-grade math scores by 7 percentile points per year.

School choice gives parents the opportunity to send their kids to the schools that best meet their education needs. It also means that schools must attract students, a powerful incentive for public schools to improve.

Harvard's Caroline Hoxby found that in the Phoenix area, traditional public schools facing charter competition raised their annual improvement on NAEP scores by 1.4 percentile points in fourth-grade reading and math, without spending a penny more.

With the possible exception of merit pay for teachers, the Rodel report carefully avoided upsetting the education establishment. As a result, its promise of education gains is illusory and the notion of doubling student achievement laughable.

Serious education reform requires rethinking our entire education delivery system, not just tinkering around the edges. Confronting issues that the education establishment finds abhorrent, including parental choice and rational human-resource management in public schools, can't be avoided if and when we resolve to improve the education of Arizona's children.

Until then, we can expect a good deal more old education-reform wine appearing in new bottles.

Think before you drink.

Matthew Ladner is director of state projects for the Alliance for School Choice and a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based free-market think tank.

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