Editor's Notebook

The Politics of Education Reform

The mid-term elections are over and so are the ad campaigns for the candidates. Not one of the candidates in any of the states that I have traveled to during this past election season neglected to mention education reform as an important initiative for their upcoming term. But now that the election is over, I wonder how many will really be able to accomplish their goals.

Just saying we need to provide a better education for all our students is nothing more than a good“sound bite” for a commercial. What we need from our leadership are adequate resources and a comprehensive plan.

Too often when people picture“school,” they think cute little kids and crayons. School seems as simple as ABC’s and 123’s. Unfortunately, the business of educating students is not that simple, and neither is education reform. What I saw in many of the candidates’ education messages was a single education initiative that would sell.

In my opinion, too much time is spent focusing on single initiatives instead of looking at the big picture. Trying to fix the system one initiative at a time is ineffective and is much more likely to make us broke than to improve education. Most initiatives, even the good ones, have two sides. None is a silver bullet and all come with costs much greater than money.

Look at the plan that calls for the reduction of class size in the early grades to 20:1 or ideally 15:1. Class size reduction (CSR) is an initiative supported by the NEA and AFT and already legislated in a number of states. On the plus side, project STAR — the largest, longest-running and most controlled study to date on CSR — states that bringing class size down in the primary grades, in and of itself, has positive effects on student achievement in all subject areas. Children who gained most from smaller classes were minority students and those in inner-city schools. And the benefits lasted — at least through 7th grade. Sounds good, and it is, but what about the other side?

Smaller class sizes mean a need for more teachers and administrators. Finding qualified personnel already comes at a great cost to districts, especially in our urban schools. In California, they found that an unwanted side effect of CSR was an increase in the number of K-3 students being taught by teachers who have not completed a state-certified training program. The lack of qualified teachers can negate the potential benefits of a smaller class size.

In most districts, CSR will also lead to a shortage of facilities and classroom space. Any and all space that can be used as general classrooms will. For many, the lack of space will translate into a reduction in specialized programs and mandated student services such as special education, child care, libraries, and computer labs. Other programs, like music and the arts, will once again find themselves on a mobile cart being wheeled from classroom to classroom — if they exist at all.

In urban settings, where kids would benefit from CSR the most, districts will find that there is no available land for new construction. Kids’ playgrounds will be turned into parking lots for portable classrooms. More dollars will be diverted from needed facility improvements and repair, and more kids will attend school in buildings that are unsafe, unhealthy, and obsolete.

The intent of class size reduction, like many other education reform initiatives, is a good one, but even good initiatives come with big tradeoffs. When I look at “cause and effect,” it becomes clear that we will never be able to accomplish education reform with a piece-by-piece effort where advances in one initiative cancel out the advances of another. We need a more holistic approach to education reform and, hopefully, we have elected leaders who can take us there.