What's Missing in Education?

President Clinton knows – and his polls show – that education is one of the hot buttons for Americans. Parents want their children to have a good education, and businesses sure don't want dumbbells on the payroll.

Thus it was no surprise that much of his State of the Union address dealt with education.

Still, as the president called for more federal programs to deal with education, I could not help but wonder whether we really need to add to the 760 federal programs we already have. Just one, Head Start, has seen spending rise from $200 million in the year it began (1968), to $1.4 billion in 1990. Today it is serving less kids than when it began.

Since federal aid to elementary and secondary education began in the 1960s, money has poured into Head Start, Title I, the Job Corps, aid to the learning disabled, aid to the physically disabled, vocational education, and all the other programs – and test scores have fallen. In education, apparently, nothing succeeds like failure.

So what do we have the honor of reducing our take-home pay for this time? Much of the president's proposed 20 percent boost in largess goes to middle-class entitlements, in the form of tax-deductible education for students who mostly would go to college anyway. And no doubt community colleges with tuition below $1,500 will raise it accordingly if the demand goes up.

In some of the president's proposals, the same ruse that accompanied his crime bill is on display. That's the one that entices communities to put 100,000 new police on the streets – with federal funding terminating three years after they're in place.

The president uses that ploy again, proposing to spend $1.25 billion a year through 2001 to help communities finance $20 billion in school construction – but then nothing beginning in 2002, which just happens to be the year the budget is supposed to be balanced.

The president's State of the Union address failed to speak to the basic question of why our education system isn't doing better with existing resources. No one in the world outspends us, so maybe it's time to examine the basic premises on which our educational system operates. In a new international study of education, John H. Bishop of Cornell University makes two striking points about America's classrooms today:

"Students are ranked relative to their classmates, not assessed against an external criterion, so they pressure each other not to study."

"Teachers are expected to pass almost all students, and if the class fails to study hard, the teacher is forced to lower the passing standard of the course."

President Clinton has proposed tough reading and math tests, and Professor Bishop probably would agree. After looking at our own education system and those of some European countries, Professor Bishop concludes that a national or state system of what he calls "curriculum-based external examinations" with real consequences – that is, achievement tests in specific subjects that reliably measure what students are expected to know, independently prepared and administered to all students – would remedy both shortcomings. The professor no doubt would want the tests given in all major subjects.
How well a student did would be based on the standard set for the test, not on how well other students did. To work, the test results would have to have real consequences for the student; for example, universities and employers would find the scores useful in making selections.

In European countries that have such external examinations, teachers tend to shed the role of judge and take on the role of coach, Bishop says, and students "see their teachers as allies in a common endeavor." He predicts the same thing would happen in this country.

Bishop points out that the French and Dutch school systems require students who fail two subjects in secondary school to either repeat the grade or transfer to a less demanding school or program, so the goal of mastering each subject is taken seriously. In those systems, he also found high hiring and promotion standards for secondary school teachers, sustained by high wages and good working conditions. And students (or their parents) can choose whatever upper secondary school they wish, with the money following the student. President Clinton's educational establishment constituency would applaud the high pay but balk at school choice and tough achievement standards.

Improving our educational system is important, but one of the president's 10 points is particularly disturbing. It's great to have 100,000 volunteers teaching third graders to read. But why are 40% of them not able to read now? What is happening in the first and second grades?