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Jewish World Review June 28, 2000 / 25 Sivan, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Who needs computers in schools? --
THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE the year of education. It's George W. Bush's favorite topic, and apparently Al Gore's as well (since the decline of the carbon tax idea). Bush delivered a fine education speech a few months ago (introducing the excellent phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations"), and Vice President Gore has proposed several new spending plans (well, he's a Democrat isn't he?).

But while the subject remains on the back burner, the Heritage Foundation has been busily testing the popular shibboleths and arriving at some useful conclusions.

What does nearly everyone agree we need? If you said "smaller classes" and "more computers," go to the head of the class. Those ideas, though backed by little research, are popular with parents, politicians and educators.

Obviously, the National Education Association is inclined to favor smaller class sizes -- it means hiring more teachers. And parents often assume that smaller classes mean more individual attention for their children and therefore better academic performance. Seventy percent of parents in one poll said reducing class size would improve their local schools. Congress has responded to public sentiment with more money -- for example $1.3 billion earmarked for "class size reduction" in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2000.

Class sizes in public schools have actually been declining over the past 30 years. In 1970, the average class contained 22.3 students. Today, the average is 17 students per teacher. Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold-standard test of academic achievement given every two years to students in grades four, eight and 12 nationwide, shows no discernible educational benefit in reading scores for children in smaller classes.

Many other factors do seem to influence students' reading scores. The presence of at least one parent at home who attended college bodes well for reading performance. So does having "additional reading materials" available at home. Family income (as indicated by participation in the free or reduced-price lunch program) also correlates with reading performance. Race correlates strongly with reading achievement. But class size has little to no impact.

Now there are some researchers who have suggested that radically reducing class sizes, say from 25 to 15, would positively affect student performance. But no one is seriously proposing to reduce class sizes that dramatically -- it would be too costly. And reducing the average class from 25 to 20 would net each student only a few extra seconds of individual attention anyway. Actually, in light of the anti-instruction bias prevalent in the teaching world right now, it's curious that so much attention is given to class size.

Teachers, after all, are discouraged from lecturing or instructing their students directly. They are exhorted instead to be "facilitators" -- helping children to find the answers themselves. The new teacher, fresh out of education school, breaks the class into teams of four or five students each and lets the kids teach one another.

Still, the best teachers can and always have managed as many as 35 kids at a time. As Irwin Kurz, principal of the demanding P.S. 161 in Brooklyn, N.Y., told the Heritage Foundation, "It's better to have one good teacher (in a class of 35) than two crummy teachers any day."

The same seems to be true of computers in the classroom, another favored gimmick of the "spend more" crowd. Like smaller classes, computer instruction sounds good to many people. But according to the regression analysis of the NAEP, computer instruction by a well-trained teacher has no impact on reading scores. By contrast, family income, educational attainment by parents, sex, race and TV viewing all do correlate strongly with reading scores.

Gore is keen to see every classroom and every school library "hooked up to the information superhighway," but it isn't clear why. Most of what is available on the Internet is neither educational nor uplifting. And most teachers do not have the time to monitor carefully what students are doing. So the "spend more" crowd has some explaining to do. It seems the latest fads, computers and smaller classes, will work no better than New Math or Whole Language.

But then, there doesn't seem to be a strong statistical link between intelligence and education policy-making, either.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate