Sunday, September 04, 2005

Why aren't U.S. public schools more like universities?

There is widespread agreement that America has the best universities in the world. Foreign students enroll by the hundreds of thousands, and American college professors dominate the Nobel Prize lists. But virtually no one says we have the best K-12 education in the world. To the contrary, many lament the poor showing of American students on international tests. What makes American universities so much better than our primary and secondary schools?

While many factors are at work, much of the explanation can be summarized in two words: "privatization" and "markets." About a third of four-year college students attend private institutions, and the proportion is growing. By contrast, only one-eighth of K-12 kids attend private schools.

Moreover, even public universities are far more independent of the political process than K-12 schools. Public universities have greater ability to hire and fire staff, pay people on the basis of merit, change curricula, and face far less interference from obstructionist labor unions.

These organizational differences are important. Countless academic studies show that kids learn better in private schools or in public schools that manage to remain independent of central bureaucracies. While there are exceptions, universities are more decentralized, more innovative, and less constrained by mindless rules and regulations like teacher certification requirements and class-size restrictions.

More important, however, is the fact that universities are far more subject to the discipline of the market, meaning they face financial consequences for displeasing students or parents. Nearly every American college student has to pay tuition covering a significant percentage of the cost. If colleges fail to serve the students well, they may lose tuition revenues or fall in rankings issued by organizations. Top spots in the US News & World Report list are particularly coveted.

By contrast, very few public schools charge anything for attendance. Because parents "pay" for schools only indirectly through property taxes, they demand expensive but inefficient features like small classes. While classes of over 30 are rare for high school seniors, many college kids learn quite well a year later as college freshman in lectures of 200 -- and the parents rarely complain because they are now paying the bill.

Rising tuition charges at colleges and universities have increased opportunities for profit-making private schools like the University of Phoenix that have great promise both as educational institutions and as businesses. This competition forces traditional not-for-profit schools to improve quality, reduce costs, or implement other innovations to attract students. By contrast, for-profit K-12 schools tend to be financially weak since they face a huge price disadvantage relative to "free" public schools.

Can K-12 reformers learn something from the universities? Yes, with caveats. As costs for public schools rise, cash-strapped governments should consider freezing subsidies to the public schools and allow them to charge tuition. To avert arguments that we are denying access to the poor, "progressive vouchers" like those once advocated by Robert Reich might be used. As tuition charges rise beyond 10-20 percent of revenues, public schools could take on a more private dimension, perhaps by putting some parents on the school governing boards, and lowering government regulations and centralized control as private funding increases.

Yet there are limits to this approach. America's universities themselves face only limited market discipline owing to huge payments by federal and state government, not to mention private loan and scholarship programs. University tuition charges have gone up even faster than health care charges, largely because the customer has become insensitive to price changes as others pick up the tab.

A move toward the college model for K-12 schools should avoid the morass of government student loan programs that have contributed to the tuition rise. Moreover, accountability at many colleges is limited, allowing administrators to waste resources on pet projects that would not be approved by customers if spending were more transparent.

We must be careful to avoid the pitfalls that have caused universities to become more costly, less efficient, and disconnected from their consumers. But by adopting some of the strengths of American colleges we might be able to close the quality gap between basic and higher education which threatens American students.



An English learner is faced with multiple challenges when entering the public school system in the United States. The student needs to achieve fluency in the English language while at the same time master the content required of all students assigned to the same grade level. Unfortunately, the instruction offered to English learners doesn't always reflect these dual goals and sometimes serves to undermine both of them.

As of July 1, 1976 Illinois school districts have been required by Public Act 78-727 to offer bilingual education programs (English and one other language) whenever 20 or more students of limited-English fluency were enrolled in one school. However, John Hood of the John Locke Foundation ascertained almost ten years ago that, "A review of 300 "studies" of bilingual education by federal researchers found only 72 that were methodologically sound. Of those studies, 83 percent comparing bilingual education to immersion found that kids learned to read better through immersion. Not a single study found the reverse." (Immersion vs. bilingual education)

NCLB, by requiring schools to disaggregate data derived from test scores to give a more accurate picture of who is learning what, has created a much greater public awareness about the problems faced by English learners and has brought to our attention that many of them fall under the category of "left behind" at the end of the educational process. NCLB is meant to force the education system to remedy these types of problems so that every student is given equal opportunity to succeed in our society.

How is Illinois addressing the situation? In some ways Illinois is going backwards. According to a new study by Christine Rossell of the Lexington Institute, the, "Illinois Board of Education lowered the score one must obtain on the IMAGE to be “proficient” which would apply to 2004-2005 results, as well as future results. In addition, the state board voted to increase the minimum size of a sub-group from 40 to 50 before it can be held accountable." This gives schools some relief in making AYP (adequate yearly progress) goals.

In Illinois, individual school districts like Elgin U46 will be required to use the ACCESS test to determine English proficiency of LEP students. "Having one uniform statewide English proficiency exam is an improvement, but it does not solve the essential flaw in English proficiency tests – they frequently cannot distinguish the difference between a student who does not know the answer and a student who does not know English." (Rossell)

Recommendations such as more professional development for EL teachers and standardization of EL curriculum will help improve the situation. But even more needs to be done.

"Standards will improve the education of LEP children by giving all teachers in a state the same benchmarks and skills they should be looking for at different grades and different English proficiency levels." (Rossell) However, implementing standards will not ensure that LEP students get to the state’s proficient level unless there is a road map designed to get them there.

As Robert Linquanti suggests in The Redesignation Dilemma, specific procedures must be put into place that will assure annual monitoring of students' academic progress and appropriate remediation for those who most assuredly will be left behind under the current system. There needs to be clear performance expectations and progress indicators for English Learners in English Language Development and English Language Arts.......

Statistics show ELs likelier to drop out than graduate. To prevent this from happening, families must be guaranteed that their children will receive academic instruction from qualified teachers, fluent in English, and who will provide "best practice" in their methods of instruction. Anything less pays lip service to the crisis which spurred the attachment of accountability measures to federal education funding in the first place.

More here


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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