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America on the cusp of education renaissance

By Matthew Ladner
web posted September 11, 2006

Students around the country have left behind the diversions of summer and gone back to school. Summer vacation blending into the Friday night lights of football season helps define the rhythm of life in America and has for decades.

Many of us find this pattern comfortable, even reassuring. This time of transition is also a time for reflection on our schools. We should not feel as comfortable as we do about the present, but we should feel optimistic about the future.

Summer vacation itself comes from a bygone agricultural society that needed children home in the summer to help pick crops. There's a message in the endurance of this school calendar: our schools have failed to adapt to a changing world. European and Asian students attend a significantly higher number of school days each year. Not coincidentally, their 12th graders strongly outperform ours in international exams.

A fine line exists between stability and stagnation. In education policy, we have been content to sail well past that line. For too long our answer to education challenges has been "just spend more money." In 1960, average public school spending per pupil was $375 (around $2300 in inflation adjusted dollars). Today, we spend close to $10,000. Spending per pupil has tripled since the first baby-boomers attended schools. How many baby-boomers think today's schools are three times better?

Author Andrew Coulson notes that the last great innovation to transform American classroom instruction was the invention of the chalkboard in 1801. Consider this in comparison to the computer industry. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a PC that is not more powerful and less expensive than the model its manufacturer offered just two years ago. But the school system continues to plod along, always spending more but often producing less.

Fortunately, this status quo will not endure. Nearly a fourth of K-12 students won't attend their neighborhood public schools this fall, choosing instead from an array of public and private options, including magnet, charter, private and home schooling. But for many, especially for inner-city children, these options remain far too scarce. The momentum to innovate must accelerate.

In the past, a lack of data enabled stagnation. Armchair observations of real-estate agents were often the most sophisticated opinions regarding the quality of local schools. Today, online services like www.greatschools.net provide a mountain of comparative testing and parental review data in a few short clicks.

New technologies and practices, such as self-paced computer-based instruction and data-based merit pay for instructors, hold enormous promise which has only begun to be explored. That said, disadvantaged children in KIPP Academy schools, among others, have achieved phenomenal academic results not with new technologies, but rather with old-fashioned "time on task" hard work and extended school days.

In short, we now have the primordial soup of a market for schools. The biggest winners will be those suffering most under the status quo. A market system will embrace and replicate reforms that produce results, and discard those that fail. The current top-down, political system cannot perform this function. Where bureaucrats and politicians have failed, a market of parents pursuing the best interests of their children will succeed.

We cannot feel satisfied with a system that watches helplessly as a third of students drop out before graduation each year. We can do much better. America is rousing itself from a century long slumber of stagnant schooling practices. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the coming education renaissance. ESR

Matthew Ladner, PhD, is vice president for research at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute.





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