Jonah was rebuked by God because he had no concern for the residents of Nineveh who “did not know their right hand from their left.” This article addresses the problems of the public schools, using home schools as an object lesson in how true improvement in education is possible. The article also addresses the proposals for a national achievement test. If this test is adopted, it will be because of the issues associated with public education. However, there is grave concern that such a test will ultimately become compulsory for home schoolers as well.
by Michael P. Farris
The communist notion of a “planned economy“ sounds so plausible. A committee of experts meets to decide how many automobiles, telephones, and refrigerators are needed by the entire nation. There is no need to have the “waste” which comes from competition. If the nation only needs 100,000 refrigerators, one company can produce this number most efficiently. Competition inherently results in duplication—according to the communist theory.
Free market advocates have always believed that this theory was doomed to failure. Now the whole world knows that planned economies simply cannot produce enough goods and services to satisfy even basic needs while free market economies produce enough to satisfy desires and luxuries.
The recent news of the sharp decline in SAT scores reminds America of the sobering reality that our school system is not producing a sufficient amount of the goods and services which comprise education. But our leaders, including President Bush and many other Republicans, are calling for reforms which are straight out of the playbook of the communist notion of planned economies.
We are told that we need a national achievement test that will measure what every student should know. This is nothing more than a production quota. It is a centralized bureaucratic committee of experts who determine what all children should learn. And make no mistake about it—if such a test is ever adopted, every school in America will be forced to change its curriculum to maximize its students' performance on the test. Many advocates of a national test recognize that the test will require a national curriculum and seem to believe that this is a good idea as well.
There is no reason to believe that a centralized, planned education in America will perform any better than a centralized, planned economy performed in the Soviet Union. Indeed there is every reason to believe that it will not perform as well based solely upon American experience in education.
Consider an example near and dear to the Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. When he was governor of Tennessee, he concluded that the public schools of his state were in disarray. Student achievement lingered at an unacceptably low rate.
Enter the experts to conduct centralized planning. They created a plan alluringly called “Basic Skills First.” This plan set measurable goals in the areas of reading/language arts and mathematics. A comprehensive testing program was devised to measure student achievement for each of these goals. Tests were not just given once a year—but repeated tests and quizzes were given weekly and monthly. And then there was an end-of-the-year test to give a basis for overall assessment.
Textbook companies who want to sell books in Tennessee are required to demonstrate that their texts have a sufficient number of examples of each of the state-mandated learning objectives. A centralized committee reviews all books and approves only those with the best correlation with these “learning quotas.”
Tennessee's teachers were given detailed instruction to ensure that the goals of the Basic Skills Program were actually employed in every classroom. At the same time an incentive program for teacher improvement was also launched. Teachers could gain higher levels of endorsements on their certification for additional pay. In short, Tennessee conducted a statewide experiment in educational innovation and improvement.
However, no experiment can be measured only against itself. There must be a control group. Fortunately, in Tennessee there was a control group—albeit an unintentional one.
In 1985, the Tennessee legislature passed a law permitting parents to teach their own children at home. The home-schooling law was the exact opposite of the planned economy of the public schools.
No state goals were established. No review was made of the home-schooling curriculum by any government official. Teachers were not required to have a license from the state—any parent with a high school diploma could teach through the eighth grade. There were no interim quizzes, no monthly tests, no quarterly reviews. Home school students were simply brought in at the end of the school year and given the same end of the year test as the public school students.
Home school students had absolutely no interaction with the “Basic Skills First” program prior to taking the end-of-the-year examination. Indeed, it was a perfect control group.
Who won? The “free market” home school students clearly outperformed their “planned economy” counterparts from the public schools. In both 1986 and 1987 home school students consistently scored higher than their public school counterparts in every subtest. This was especially true in reading—home schoolers scored significantly higher than public school students in this most critical subject.
After a few years of suffering public embarrassment from press reports of home schoolers outperforming public school students, officials started giving home school students different tests so that a direct comparison was no longer possible.
These results are not peculiar to Tennessee. A study of 2,000 home-schooling families in the 1989–90 school year found that home school students scored 30 to 34 percentile points above public school averages in every subtest. A national home-schooling testing program was launched for the 1990–91 school year. The instrument employed was the Stanford Achievement Test. The testing conditions were carefully controlled in a program expressly approved by the Psychological Corporation, owners of the Stanford test. Over 5,000 students were examined. Again the home school students averaged approximately 20 percentile points higher than public school students in every category.
But there is a greater lesson here than that home schooling is a valid form of education and needs to be left alone by the bureaucrats. The lesson is that education is always best when it can be innovative, individualized, and independent. Why should our nation move in the direction of more centralized educational planning? Where is the evidence that centralized educational planning has ever served to increase student achievement in a straight comparison with those left free to learn? Why should we even consider the expense of developing a national test? What is wrong with the Stanford Achievement Test, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, California Achievement Test, Metropolitan Achievement Test, or the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills? What is wrong with the state-wide tests that are out there: TELLS in Pennsylvania, PEP in New York, BSAP in South Carolina, and Basic Skills First in Tennessee?
Simply put, there are enough tests on the market to assess how our children are doing. And we know they are doing poorly.
Instead of looking at the results of the tests and, in effect, calling for a national examination to give us a second opinion on our academic illness, why don't we start thinking about a cure. More of the same medicine is not the answer.
There is a lot of talk about the need for “radical reform” of our nation's system of education. The evidence overwhelmingly supports this conclusion. But there are two possible courses of action each suggested by different meanings of the word “radical.” When I was growing up in the sixties, the word “radical” had the connotation of left-wing extremism, as in “communist radical.” I learned the other meaning of “radical” in math class as it related to “roots,” as in square roots, cubed roots, etc.
We could choose radical educational reform from the philosophical left wing. This would consist of large national doses of the planned educational programs that have been failing for twenty-plus years at the state level. Or we can engage in radical reform suggested by the term “roots.” We can return to our roots where each and every school and each and every teacher had a great deal of educational freedom.
Rather than a planned, centralized national system of education, we need to turn the control of schools back to the ultimate roots of our nation. I believe that the evidence is clear: when our nation's schools were run by the cooperative effort of parents, teachers, and building principals, the results were much better. If we carefully examine the last twenty years, we can see that achievement has declined in direct proportion to the increase of centralized planning and administration.
Much of the debate about educational reform centers around the need for more money for the schools. There is a ready source for obtaining a huge sum of additional money to put in the classroom. We should rid our nation of a vast army of centralized education planners. Taxpayers invest billions of dollars in salaries and support for countless bureaucrats who never teach a child.
For nearly thirty years my father was a public school principal. He used to tell me that if the government would give him every dollar allocated to educate the students in his building, he could double the teacher's salaries, buy new books more often, pay fair rent for the building, and keep a large profit for himself.
A planned educational economy will produce some goods and services that are the educational equivalent of automobiles, telephones, and refrigerators. But in terms of quantity and quality there will always be shortfalls. Worse yet, planned economies never produce innovations. Free market economies have produced personal computers, fax machines, cellular phones, and camcorders. Only “free market” schools will produce the educational equivalent of these innovations.
The bureaucratic experts have had their chance. They have failed miserably. It is time for a return to our roots. Let's try something really radical—let the parents, principals, and teachers have a shot at running a free market system of education.