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Leaders show ignorance about education.

February 24, 2003

By William L. Bainbridge

French Queen Marie Antoinette, upon hearing that the peasantry had no bread, is said to have exclaimed, "Let them eat cake!''

Historians have questioned whether she uttered those words or anything like them, but the phrase has come to symbolize the callousness of privileged leaders toward the poorer members of their societies. Unfortunately, some of our politicians have uttered similarly shallow words about education reforms and the children those reforms should benefit. But for these modern-day heads of state, the record will provide no doubt that the words were spoken.

For example, Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt announced in his January State of the State address that he is exploring a proposal that would "link state funding to performance.'' The plan is to replace the state's "weighted pupil-unit,'' based primarily on attendance, with a plan that would provide money to schools "based on student proficiency and competency.'' According to Utah's Board of Education, "However fast or slow students complete graduation units is the rate (at which) districts will be reimbursed.''

Such statements exhibit a lack of understanding that a child's home environment and mother's education level have a much higher correlation to student outcomes and standardized tests than anything the schoolteachers, staff and administrators can do.

Leavitt might as well have said, "Let's punish the underprivileged children who cannot perform well on our tests by cutting their schools' funding even more.''

School practices and policies can make only a limited difference for children from homes in which parents have few educational or financial resources. Proposals to link funding to performance confuse the public and deter the possibility of substantially helping disadvantaged children to obtain a high-quality, resource-rich education.

When we look at many of the potentially harmful policies and practices being implemented in schools, we can assume only that their creators have been misled by the following fallacies:

* Children can learn at the same level and in the same amount of time.

Children can learn at some level, and most children can learn a basic curriculum given sufficient resources. The belief that all children can learn the same curriculum in the same time and at the same level is absurd. This unexamined belief can be used to deny differential financial support for those who come to school with environmental disadvantages.

As a society, we need to concentrate on improving the lives of children before they come to school and not simply proclaim that all children can learn, without enacting proper public policies to provide economic opportunity for families, health care for all children and parenting education for young mothers.

If we can summon the courage and will to do these things, then maybe all children can learn at higher levels and the gap between low-income and more-privileged children really can be narrowed.

* Uniform standards can be applied to education.

Decades of history and mountains of research indicate that childhood development is unique for each individual. The idea that children and schools should be evaluated by a uniform criterion, usually testing, as Ohio and many other states do, has the potential to do untold damage. Uniformity of measurement leaves out human judgment, the most critical element in decision-making.

State legislators and others who promote uniform standards promote a false system of evaluation that probably will disappear as rapidly as it has been established.

In time, with enough effort and money and solid social policies, the achievement gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged can narrow.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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