Pitfalls and Pratfalls of Education Summits

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It was good that a roomful of Minnesota leaders, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, recently met at a St. Paul summit to talk about improving science and math education in the state. Let’s just hope their conceiving and dreaming prove more fruitful than when 49 of the nation’s governors, along with President George H. W. Bush, convened in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989 and pledged that American boys and girls would lead the whole world in those two subjects a mere eleven years later, in 2000. How close did our kids actually get?

In exams given in nearly four dozen countries in 2003, American eighth graders came in tenth in science and fifteenth in math. “Just missed,” as the poorly named Maxwell Smart used to say.

In the possible event of future top level meetings, how might participants escape looking as foolish as did a former president and 98 percent of then-sitting governors?

A first rule would be building on what solid research says. In rapid fire, here are four such findings.

• Don’t expect academic salvation in money, even if extra funding is called an “investment.” According to Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby, spending on elementary and secondary education in the United States, in inflation-adjusted dollars, more than doubled between 1970 and 2000, from about $4,500 to nearly $9,000 per pupil. If such increases had led to anything approaching adequate, much less proportionate, progress over those three decades, there would be fewer calls for big meetings now. This is not a brief for stiffing schools; it is an argument for recognizing the limits of money as a solution by itself.

• Don’t expect smaller classes to necessarily help much either. According to Hoxby again, public schools nationally in 1970 employed two teachers for every fifty students. By 1998, the ratio was three teachers for every 50 boys and girls. Granted, the number of teachers working outside of classrooms, someplace in bureaucracy land, grew over the period, which is no small issue and mystery of its own. But as with spending, evidence is clear that educational returns on smaller classes are not nearly as great as proponents claim, if and when returns exist at all.

• Likewise, don’t expect too much from expanded early childhood education programs. It’s a given that early childhood programs will increase in coming years, as political and other stars are aligned. This may well be a good thing – if such programs are academically rich. But in the current ramp up, it’s useful to keep data like these in mind:

According to a 2003 report of the U.S. Department of Education, only five percent of American three-year-olds attended preschools in 1965. By the end of the century, the number had grown to 39 percent. Among four-year-olds, 16 percent attended preschools in 1965. A more recent figure for four-year-olds is 66 percent. Question: If early childhood education is as intrinsically powerful as many claim, wouldn’t their graduates over the last 40 years have performed much better academically than they have? One would think so.

• And in regards to enormous gaps in academic achievement between white and minority students, evidence is growing that African American students in particular benefit from school choice programs that include private schools. According to Harvard’s Paul Peterson (who grew up in Montevideo, Minnesota), black kids especially tend to derive “large educational gains – higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and long-term economic benefits” from private schooling. Doesn’t this suggest it’s in our state and nation’s best interests to least experiment with choice programs that include private schools? It would seem so.

As broad brush strokes go, many will find the above bristly. But any attempts to seriously upgrade Minnesota education without heeding lessons like these will fail. They also will waste millions, perhaps billions of dollars.

Mitchell B. Pearlstein is president of Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Minneapolis.