Utah's superintendent for public instruction, Scott Bean, has proposed adding another 30 to 60 minutes a day to the average school day and requiring high school students to learn two foreign languages.
His heart is in the right place, but the answers, unfortunately, aren't as easy as all that. Bean, like many people these days, is concerned about American students falling behind those of the rest of the world. In a global economy, where new technologies and opportunities abound, the nation's future depends greatly on the success of public schools.The trouble is, adding class time and a second language may be like prescribing aspirin for a broken leg. The problem simply can't be fixed with a pill, and the patient is having a harder and harder time keeping up with everyone else.
Nothing illustrates this as well as a recent analysis by Herbert J. Walberg, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He showed that the state of American education is bad and getting worse, and that, (surprise, surprise) the quality of education has little to do with the amount of money spent on it.
Walberg, who reported on his findings recently in the Wall Street Journal, found that the most serious problem with American schools is inefficiency. He studied the gains students made between ages 9 and 14 in reading, math and science, and found the United States lagging behind in all three. American kids made less progress in reading than any other of the 17 nations studied. Their progress was only 78 percent of the average.
The news was just as bad in math, where U.S. students gained only 73 percent as much as the average. In science, they learned 78 percent as much, but when the gains from seventh to eighth grade are compared, the results drop to 63 percent.
Walberg's analysis tracked, as much as possible, the things learned solely in school. It compensated for those things each child learned at home before formal education began at age 6. Why is this important? Because one of the favorite excuses education officials use is that kids don't get enough support at home.
Another favorite excuse is that taxpayers aren't willing to pump enough money into public schools. But Walberg found that primary schools in the United States spend an average of $5,300 per student, which is 75 percent more than the international average of $3,033. Money doesn't necessarily translate into results.
So what's the solution? Competition, of course. Or perhaps a better way to put it is to use another popular late 20th century word, "deregulation." It works in every other endeavor where performance is important; why not in education?
Earlier this month, the Utah Board of Education approved the state's first eight charter schools, which will inject a measure of competition into the system. A charter school is like a private school in that an outside group can form it and can use innovative techniques to compete for students. The state will give a portion of public school funds to charters based on the number of students they enroll.
In other states, this approach has worked well. A recent New York Times Magazine report on charters in New Jersey touted the idea as being "smack in line with mainstream Republicanism - market driven, secular schools that required no tax increase."
The other idea gaining steam is, of course, the voucher system. Under this plan, states give tax vouchers to parents who want their kids to attend private schools. So far, this idea has run headlong into the question of whether governments ought to pay for children to attend religious schools. The fear is that this would be a violation of the first amendment's prohibition against the establishment of a government religion. But the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently struck down those concerns, which may signal the beginning of the end for that silly little argument, as well.
If parents want to choose to have their own money go toward a parochial education, why shouldn't they be allowed to do so? After all, the parents are the ones doing the choosing, not the government.
As a father, I am watching these first rumblings of an education revolution with interest. Generally speaking, my children have been taught well in Utah's public schools. Some teachers have been excellent. Others have been so-so.
But I see no reason to believe competition would make anything worse, particularly if it gives me a choice when confronted with a so-so teacher.
Bean is right. Schools need to do a better job preparing students for the real competition that begins after the caps and gowns are tossed in the air. But the answers don't lie in the current system.
Deregulation is never easy at first. But, just as a deregulated airline industry led to cheaper, more frequent flights and a deregulated long-distance industry led to cheaper and better telephone calls, a deregulated education industry will lead to smarter, better equipped kids - at less cost.