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The Wastage in Education

by Samuelson, Robert J.

There's a flabbiness in our thinking about schools that poses as high-mindedness

THE UNITED STATES SPENDS MORE THAN A half-trillion dollars a year on education (to be precise: $530 billion in the 1995-96 school year, counting everything from elementary to graduate school). We waste a lot of that. The latest evidence comes from Massachusetts, where--for the first time--applicants for new teaching jobs are being tested for basic competence in reading, writing and a subject area. The first test was given in April to 1,795 recent or soon-to-be college graduates. The results were (to put it mildly) disappointing: 59 percent failed.

John Silber, chairman of the state Board of Education and chancellor of Boston University, expressed disgust at the scores. One question asked students to listen to a short passage and write what they had heard. "Scores of applicants," Silber wrote in The New York Times, recorded "new spellings like 'improbally,' 'corupt,' 'integraty,' 'bouth' (meaning both), 'bodyes'; and 'relif'." Paul Reville, a former Board of Education member who saw some tests, says the "writing at the lowest end was absolutely abysmal."

What are we to make of this?

Well, one conclusion is that teaching continues to have a hard time attracting good students and that teachers' colleges--a source of many of the test candidates--are often mediocre. By this, I do not mean to stigmatize all teachers or overlook the special talent (different from raw intelligence) required to run a classroom. As it happens, my wife is a public-school elementary teacher. She's bright and works hard. I recognize the stiff demands of good teaching. Still, the Massachusetts test suggests that some of the nation's 3.1 million teachers belong elsewhere.

A second conclusion is that even a college degree has been devalued, because many students who get degrees "lack fundamental literacy skills," writes Jerome Murphy, dean of Harvard's School of Education, in The Boston Globe. Massachusetts released test results for candidates from 56 institutions. Only two (Harvard and Wellesley, with 13 candidates) had perfect pass records. Some well-known schools had fairly high failure rates: Brandeis, 47 percent; Boston University, 34 percent; the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), 45 percent; Simmons College, 60 percent.

But the largest lesson of this episode is that money can't buy educational success. Let's see why.

The main reason that college degrees have been cheapened is that, except at elite institutions, admissions standards barely exist. We've oversubsidized the expansion of higher education through federal student grants and loans and state university systems. The central problem of higher education is not too little money; it's too much. Too many colleges chase too few good students. To survive, colleges scramble to get bad students (and their tuitions). "If you have a high-school diploma and tuition--and can walk and talk--you can graduate from college," says Harvard's Murphy. "There are a lot of empty seats."

The glut of bad students means many need remedial courses--36 percent of freshmen in New York's university system, 48 percent in Kentucky's and 39 percent in Georgia's, reports a study for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. (The figures are for 1995.) Once in college, unqualified students further corrode academic standards. Faculty members are under pressure to lower course demands "to maintain [their] department's enrollment and claim on university resources," writes economist Robert Costrell of UMass.

What about teachers? Popular wisdom holds that we get the teachers we deserve; if we paid more, we'd get better teachers. Well, we've tried that on a modest scale. Between 1979 and 1989, average teachers' salaries (after inflation) rose 20 percent, report economists Michael Podgursky of the University of Missouri and Dale Ballou of UMass. Higher salaries were one response of states and localities to the critical 1983 report on schools, "A Nation at Risk." In a study, Podgursky and Ballou examined whether paying more meant better teachers. In general, it didn't.

Their explanation is that the ways teachers are hired and paid--reflecting custom and union contracts--offset most benefits of higher pay. Salary scales are typically uniform; teachers receive across-the-board increases. Teacher tenure, earned after a few years, makes it hard to fire incompetents. The result: higher pay caused the worst teachers to stay longer, because their other job prospects were poor. This reduced openings for better new teachers, who--with good skills--found other work.

Our education debates are leading nowhere. Most liberals superficially support tougher "standards" but still believe in throwing money at schools. This ensures waste and failure. Many conservatives have given up on public schools and plug "vouchers" or "choice." These schemes may help some students, but most will still use public schools. We've got to improve what we've got. In theory, that's easy; in practice, it may be impossible.

The essence of good schools is the combination of competent (and committed) teachers with motivated students. To attract better teachers, we need to dismantle much of the traditional--and union-protected--system of hiring and firing. Principals can't realistically be held accountable for what goes on in their schools if they can't fire incompetent teachers. School systems won't draw enough competent high-school chemistry teachers if they can't pay them more than elementary-school teachers. Similarly, many students won't be motivated to work harder if they know they've got a free pass to college. Admissions standards need to be toughened.

But such changes founder on enduring obstacles. Unions exist to protect teachers, not to help students. Most middle-class parents want their kids to go to college; tougher admissions standards would trigger a backlash. Most educators are cautious. I asked Harvard's Murphy whether he would endorse an idea of mine: require students who want a federal college loan or grant to pass a competency test to show they're qualified for college. He wouldn't. There's a flabbiness in our thinking about schools that poses as high-mindedness. The result is huge wastage that is ultimately measured in lost human potential.

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