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Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2001 / 9 Shevat, 5761

George Will

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Tall order for a few federal dollars -- IF ARCHIMEDES, explaining the principle of the lever, really said, "Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth," he was right in theory but impractical, because he would have had to stand far from Earth with an awfully long lever. When George Bush aspires to move the world of public primary and secondary education with the lever of federal aid, he is doing the best he can, given the tool at hand and the impediments in front of him.

The tool is federal money, just 7 percent of all spending on public education from kindergarten through 12th grade. The threat of losing it, however, can be an incentive for failing schools to change their behavior. Impediments to Bush include the public school industry and the complacency of the American majority.

It took decades for liberal resistance to welfare reform to crumble. Today's slowly crumbling liberal resistance to school reform includes the complaint that standards -- testing every pupil in grades three through eight, every year -- will result in schools that "teach to the test." But that will be good if the tests are good. Accountability -- competition, a functioning market -- requires information about which schools and teachers are succeeding.

Vouchers are a minuscule firecracker in Bush's program and, as Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation says, the firecracker has a long -- a seven-year -- fuse. Bush's program envisions a three-year implementation period before the clock starts ticking on failing schools. After the fifth year, students in failing schools would be able to chose among other public schools. Only after the sixth year would such pupils be given vouchers redeemable at private schools.

Vouchers are less instruments for fostering school choice than incentives for reforms that would obviate choice by rectifying failure. What right have chronically failing public schools to hold pupils hostage, particularly given that we can identify today most of the schools that will be failing in 2008? Most serve inner-city, poor minority children from homes without fathers present.

A durable delusion in education policy is that there is a direct correlation between financial inputs and cognitive outputs -- increased spending produces a commensurate improvement in a school's educational product. The public education industry subscribes to this materialist theory. The performance of inner-city Catholic schools, which do better with fewer resources, refutes it.

The intractable problem for schools is "9-91": Only 9 percent of the hours lived by young Americans between birth and their 18th birthdays is spent in school, and the other 91 percent -- families, popular culture and the culture of the streets -- often overwhelms what schools do.

In 1966 the government considered not releasing sociologist James Coleman's groundbreaking report on education because it refuted policies that focused on per-pupil spending, teachers' salaries and pupil-teacher ratios. The report said: "Schools are remarkably similar in the effect they have on the achievement of their pupils when the socioeconomic background of the students is taken into account." So, the powerful predictors of schools' performances are the qualities of the pupils' families.

Twenty-five years later, an official of the Educational Testing Service estimated that about 90 percent of the differences among the proficiency of public schools can be explained by five variables: number of parents in the home, days absent from school, hours spent watching television, quantity and quality of reading matter in the home, amount of homework done. Schools can influence only the last. And now there is a movement to abolish homework, partly because it widens social inequalities by disproportionately benefiting children with attentive parents.

Most parents are satisfied middle-class consumers of public education. They are excessively satisfied, considering what testing tells about American students' cognition compared with students around the developed world, and given the (related) fact that only 38 percent of American teachers had college majors in academic subjects (history, English, math, science, etc.). Most teachers' degrees are in education. One reason there is scant evidence that much good is done by lowering class sizes by a few students: Often that simply increases the attention each pupil gets from an inadequately trained teacher.

Try this thought experiment from a 1934 critic of American schooling: If you were ill and could miraculously be treated either by Hippocrates or by a young graduate of the Johns Hopkins medical school, with his modern technologies and techniques, you would choose the latter. But if you could chose to have your child taught either by Socrates or by a freshly minted holder of a degree in education, full of the latest pedagogic theories and techniques? Socrates, please.

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