The Magazine


Mar 9, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 25 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Second, those 12 billion new dollars (over seven years) would likely do more good if spent in other -- politically riskier -- ways. $ 1.7 billion a year would, for example, furnish $ 4,000 scholarships to 425,000 low-income children to escape from grim urban schools into private or charter (or suburban public) schools. That's equivalent to liberating every boy and girl in Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia from the educational carnage that now surrounds them. Alternatively, such sums would pay for all current U. S. teachers to take more university courses. The leading problem in many classrooms, after all, isn't the pupil bodycount. It's teachers who never mastered the content. The Education Department reports that 36 percent of public-school teachers of academic subjects neither majored nor minored in their main teaching field. To get them up to speed, the amount Clinton proposes to spend on class-size reduction would yield a $ 4,500 tuition grant for every one of the nation's 2.7 million teachers.

Which brings us to the third flaw in his scheme. It's embedded in a larger " teacher improvement" package that has little to do with the quality of the current teaching force, will strengthen the ed-school-and-certification monopolies for future teachers, and will weaken halting state efforts to develop sound alternatives. The White House will, for example, require communities that want to participate in the class-reduction scheme to ensure that every person hired is (or soon will be) "fully certified."

At first glance, "certified teachers" looks like another warm puppy of a policy. Who could want anything else? Yet in practically every state, the only way to get certified today is to take lots of "methods" courses in colleges of education rather than immersing oneself in the subject to be taught. It's certification that blocks millions of able adults from teaching in public schools. (Charter and private schools are often free from these rules -- and plenty of well-educated people queue up at their doors for every teaching job.) It's certification that keeps low-quality education schools in business.

Fourth, bringing 100,000 teachers onto direct federal support will create another permanent program, a virtual entitlement sure to grow over time. What happens in Year Eight, after Clinton's $ 12 billion is spent? Easy. The program will be extended. Indeed, if 18 children per class is good, the next politician will claim that 16 must be better. If Uncle Sam is going to provide the country with smaller classes through third grade, why not through fourth, then fifth? The Clinton version is just a preview of coming attractions.

Finally, across-the-board class reductions can leave needy kids worse off. Take California, for example. When Pete Wilson shrank primary classes throughout the state, veteran teachers left inner-city schools in droves, lured by the higher pay and cushier working conditions of suburban systems that suddenly had openings.

President Clinton is not the only politician now eyeing this path to voters' hearts. Congressmen and senators on both sides of the aisle are hastening to craft their own measures. They like teachers -- and puppies -- too. Most pending proposals (like the White House "teacher improvement" package) lift their ideas from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a private group funded by the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations and chaired by long-time North Carolina governor Jim Hunt. Its members include the heads of both national teacher unions and a blue-ribbon list of ed-school professors, deans, and presidents. This crew contends that the central weakness in U.S. teacher training is that candidates don't spend enough time in "professional development programs," that states lack " professional standards" boards, that certification requirements need to be strengthened, and that all teacher training programs should jump through the same "accreditation" hoops.

The commission's recommendations boil down to teachers' spending more time in ever-more-uniform education schools and barring the classroom door to everyone else. It's no surprise that the administration has bought this line. But why Congress?