Why School Reform Fails

NEWSWEEK'S economics columnist has a better idea

We are not yet serious about school reform. The latest plan from the Bush administration mixes lofty rhetoric (a pledge to "invent new schools") with vague proposals to rate our schools with national tests. It doesn't address the most dreary-and important-fact about American education: our students don't work very hard. The typical high-school senior does less than an hour of homework an evening. No school reform can succeed unless this changes. What's depressing is that we could change it, but probably won't.

We could require students receiving federal college aid to pass a qualifying test. This is a huge potential lever. Nearly two-thirds of high-school graduates go to college (including community colleges and vocational schools), and roughly two fifths-6 million students-get federal aid. In fiscal 1991, government grants and guaranteed loans totaled $18.1 billion. As a practical matter any federal test would also affect many unaided students; most colleges couldn't easily maintain a lower entrance requirement for the rich. The message would be: anyone wanting to go to college can't glide through high school.

Just how well our schools perform depends heavily on student attitudes. This is one reason why the Bush plan, which proposes tests to evaluate schools, is so empty. The tests hold no practical consequences for students and, therefore, lack the power to motivate them. When students aren't motivated, they don't treat school seriously. Without serious students, it's hard to attract good people into teaching no matter how much we pay them. And bad teachers ensure educational failure. This is the vicious circle we must break.

Unfortunately, we don't now expect much of our students. For most high-school students, it doesn't pay to work hard. Their goal is college, and almost anyone can go to some college. There are perhaps 50 truly selective colleges and universities in the country, Chester Finn Jr., professor of education at Vanderbilt University, writes in his new book, "We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future." To survive, the other 3,400 institutions of "higher learning" eagerly recruit students. Entrance requirements are meager and financial assistance from states and the federal government is abundant.

"Coast and get into college and have the same opportunities as someone who worked hard," says one senior quoted by Finn. "That is the system." It's this sort of silly rationalization that hurts American students, precisely because they can't always make up what they've missed in the past. Opportunities go only to those who have real skills-not paper credentials or many years spent on campus. The college dropout rate is staggering. After six years, less than half of students at four-year colleges have earned a degree. The graduation rate is even lower for community colleges.

Every other advanced society does it differently. "The United States is the only industrial country that doesn't have some (testing) system external to the schools to assess educational achievement," says Max Eckstein, an expert on international education. Their tests, unlike ours, typically determine whether students can continue in school. As the lone holdout, we c compare our system with everyone els( Well, we rank near the bottom on mi international comparisons.

In the media, the school "crisis" is often pictured as mainly a problem of providing better education for the poor and minorities. Stories focus on immigrants and inner-city schools. Almost everyone else (by omission) presumed to be getting an adequate education. Forget it. In fact, the test score of our poorest students, though still abysmally low, have improved. Likewise, high-school dropout rates have declined What we minimize is the slip page of our average schools.

When mediocrity is the norm, even good students suffer. In international comparisons, our top student, often fare poorly against other countries' top students, notes economist John Bishop of Cornell University. Grade inflation is widespread. In 1990, 1.1 million high-school students took the college board exams. These are the best students: 28 percent had A averages, 53 percent B's and the rest C's. Yet, two-fifths of these students scored less than 390 on the verbal SAT. The idea that college-bound students should be required (by test) to demonstrate the ability to do college-level work is common sense. It's hard to see how anyone could object, especially Didn't do it with so much public money at stake. But almost no educators or political leaders advocate it. The American belief in "equality" and "fairness" makes it hard for us to create barriers that block some students. Our approach is more indirect and dishonest: first, we give them meaningless high-school degrees; then we let them drop out of college.

The same spirit of self-deception pervades much of the school debate. We skirt the obvious-students will work if there's a good reason-and pursue painless and largely fictitious cures. There's a constant search for new teaching methods and technologies that will, somehow, miraculously mesmerize students and automatically educate them. Computers are a continuing fad. Liberals blame educational failure on inadequate spending; conservatives lambast public schools as rigid bureaucracies. These familiar critiques are largely irrelevant.

Low spending isn't the main problem. Between 1970 and 1990, "real" (inflation adjusted) spending per student in public schools rose 63 percent. In 1989, U.S. educational spending totaled 6.9 percent of gross national product, which equals or exceeds most nations'. As for "vouchers" and "choice" conservatives' current cure the experiment has already been tried in higher education. It failed. Government loans and grants are vouchers that allow students choice. The perverse result is that colleges compete by reducing entrance requirements in order to increase enrollments and maximize revenues.

A test for college aid would stem this corrosive process. The number of college freshmen would decline, but not-given the high dropout rates-the number of college graduates. Because high-school standards are so lax, the passing grade of any meaningful test would flunk many of today's seniors. Tests are available, because a few state college systems, such as New Jersey's and Tennessee's, give them to freshmen. Failing students must take remedial courses. In 1990, 37 percent of New Jersey freshmen flunked a verbal-skills test and 58 percent an algebra test.

Who would be hurt? Not students who can pass the test today: that's perhaps 40 to 60 percent of college freshmen. Not students who might pass the test with more study: that's another big fraction. (In New Jersey and Tennessee, most students pass remedial courses. If they can do it at 18 or 19, they can do it at 17.) Some students who now go to college wouldn't. Often, these students drop out after saddling themselves with a hefty student loan. Would they be worse off? On college loans, default rates range as high as 25 percent.

But let's be candid. None of this is about to happen soon. Requiring tests for college aid would cause an uproar. There would be charges of elitism, maybe racism. Colleges and universities would resist. They depend on the current open-ended flow of students and, without it, some would have to shut down. This wouldn't be bad for the country, because we now overinvest in higher education. With one-fifth the students, col leges and universities account for two fifths of all educational spending. But today's waste has spawned a huge constituency.

Little wonder that President Bush - and all politicians - steer clear of this sort of reform. It's too direct. It wouldn't cure all our educational problems, but it would make a start. It would jolt students, parents and teachers. It would foster a climate that rewards effort. It would create pressures for real achievement, not just inflated grades. It would force schools to pay more attention to non-college-bound students, rather than assuming everyone can go somewhere. It would strip away our illusions, which, sadly, are precisely what we cherish most.