Monday, February 24, 1997

Maureen DiMarco, former secretary of California Office of Child Development and Education and Bill Honig, former California Superintendent of Public Instruction, discuss the problems with America's classrooms and how to fix them.

Recorded on Monday, February 24, 1997

ROBINSON: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I 'm Peter Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Our show today "Fixing America's Public Schools." We begin with a brief quiz. The question: history. When on Christmas Eve 1776 George Washington crossed the Delaware River, who was with him in the boat? The correct answer, of course, Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. That seems somehow wrong, well, tell it to America's high school juniors. You see in a survey, more than a quarter thought the Civil War took place before 1800, placing the Civil War in the same century as the Revolutionary War. There is no doubt about it, kids in our public schools just aren't getting the educations they should. Our guests, two education experts. Bill Honig is a former California Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Maureen DiMarco is the former California Secretary of Child Development and Education. I began our conversation with a conundrum: money. You see, we are spending more on our public schools than ever before. Between 1960 and 1990, for example, per-student spending in our public schools rose from under $2000 to well over $5000 but during the same period that spending was going up and up and up the quality of education was, well.

ROBINSON: How can anyone from the President of the United States to anyone concerned about education think that the answer to the problems lies in spending more money. Maureen?

DIMARCO: Well, I think that your instinct of not saying that it is not a one-to-one correlation is correct and I think anybody in education would tell you that it is not just the amount of dollars. Obviously the amount of dollars will determine whether or not you have a below basic, a basic or an enriched program. The dollar amount does indeed have to do with whether or not you are going to support your teachers at a reasonable level of income, whether or not you are going to have adequate materials, and of course all the same costs that hit any household hit a school district. As the light bill goes up, it goes up for them as well. But the issue of school achievement wobbling up and down over the years is not as much related to dollars, in my view, as it is related to whether or not we have had a solid curricular context, whether or not we had dramatic changes in demographics among the students which we have done in different cycles along the way. So there are a lot of different factors that go into it, so your actual skepticism about dollars meaning it will get better alone is not the case. And even President Clinton didn't propose just $51 billion of new money for anything. He has is targeted on what he perceives is the major priorities, one of which is a new testing system.

HONIG: I think Maureen is on the right track here. Money makes a difference, obviously. If you've got crumbling buildings or a lot of that $51 billion was college scholarship issues too, so it wasn't all for K-12, and also there is an issue of over the long haul of teachers staying even with the standard-of-living. A lot of those increases were from standard-of-living increases, and you take that out of it and it gets much more consistent with other places in society. There is a specific one for in the last 10 or 20 years we have invested, and rightfully so, in special education for those students having problems.

ROBINSON: You say "we." Do you mean California? The Californians or the whole country?

HONIG: The whole country. You look at the figures. The numbers spent on those children, about 10 to 15 percent of the kids has gone up very, very dramatically. The numbers on all the rest of the kids actually is a much more flatter increase. So there is some technical reasons. But the bottom line of the whole question is money is important. You can't do certain things without money and especially if you have got fallen buildings and you can't buy the books, but really what we should be talking about is what are the things in schools now that need to be changed for performance and what are the areas that make a difference as far as performance.

ROBINSON: And I certainly want to flesh that out, but $51 billion is a pretty big hit against the American taxpayer, so it seems legitimate to ask a couple of education experts if you are in favor? Are you in favor, broadly speaking, of the President's initiative to spend...I know its a complicated program, but this is television. Would you give the Clinton proposal thumbs up or thumbs down, Maureen?

DIMARCO: I have to weasel on that question and look at it from sideways. First of all let me put the $51 billion in context and of course this is one of those terrible things that people who have been in public life say that irritates the audience, $51 billion is not a large amount of money spread over the country. To give you a frame of reference, California's public education spending from all sources state, local and federal, is roughly around $30 billion in one state. And we have about 13 percent of the students in the state of California. So you are not talking a huge amount of money. The second thing to remember is the Federal Government because of the separation of federal and state authorities, the Federal Government cannot mandate programs on states and local districts. So they offer incentives. Most of these programs are dangling money in exchange for your signing on to whatever it is they want to do.

ROBINSON: The state matches certain funds and so forth?

DIMARCO: Right. As Bill said, a large amount of the money is involved in college scholarships, and I do believe that is an important thing to do because so many youngsters don't have access to the University system without it. For K-12 I don't see that it is going to be a very huge impact. I think the focal points that the President has put on standards and assessment and trying to get people focused on the core issues is not wrong. I think some of the details can be argued with though.

ROBINSON: Let me try to nail you down. Thumbs up on Clinton?

HONIG: Thumbs up all the way. So federal spending is only like 6 or 7 percent of the total amount and they can focus, as Maureen said, on some areas that really need some push behind them.

ROBINSON: Maureen and Bill agreed that more money isn't the solution. So why did President Clinton propose spending an additional $51 billion ?

ROBINSON: At the Democratic Convention in 1996, ten percent of the delegates were members of the National Education Association. All the polls indicate that Universities remain among the most liberal pockets of thought and feeling in the American political landscape. What is to keep an ordinary voter from listening to this and saying, "Wait a minute. This is just one more old-fashioned, crass political pay-off to an interest group." And in this case the interest group is education. You are education professionals. You must run into this suspicion all the time.

DIMARCO: Of course its politics. How can you possibly think that somebody who is a President or a Senator or a Governor isn't going to pay attention to that? Well indeed they have to worry about making sure they represent people or they won't get reelected. So where do you draw the line between its crass politics and its good government representing the interests of the public. It is a matter of judgment and we've heard lots of arguments about that. I think that it isn't just a payoff to the National Education Association. I think Clinton more clearly looked at what the general public was missing in broad terms. If you look at the polls that have been done but before the President's proposals and since, you will see overwhelming support from the public for a clear statement of what it is schools should be about, and a very clear support for having accountability for those schools, a very clear feeling that the dollars need to be wisely spent, but they do want their schools adequately funded. What that number is they are kind of goosey about. And I think that the President made a choice that was not a surprising one and I think he does feel sincerely about these issues. He has a long history of that going back to when he was Governor or Arkansas that these are important issues.

ROBINSON: Bill, let me put the same question to you with a little twist which is, as I said, you are an educational professional. You have dedicated your life to this and yet you clearly are aware that there is a certain skepticism or suspicion among the public regarding the politics. How do you deal with that when people confront you on that?

HONIG: Well, its political. There is a political spin to education. In fact, that is one of the problems faced in Sacramento and at the national level. You can't get politics out of it. It's on peoples' minds, they care about it, they have strong feelings about it and the politicians are going to respond. Just saying that though the question is, "Is that something the public - the voting public - wants done?" And I think Maureen is right. I agree with her that this is a high issue on peoples' agenda, that is shows up number one the last year or two, and I think they've said, "What is the federal role?" and "What should we do that can help out?" And some of those things I agree with and some of them I think could be done a little bit differently, but just on the broader question which you are raising which is, "Is it a good investment for the federal government to make in our educational system?" yes, yes.

ROBINSON: Okay. Enough about politics. Next issue. How many kids can one teacher effectively teach?

ROBINSON: Class size. Smaller and smaller class sizes. Now, in a certain sense that is sort of intuitively appealing. I can see that if you have fewer kids in a class the teacher gets to spend more time with each kid. On the other hand, there are a couple of counter-examples. One, my sainted 80-year old mother who was educated in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania had 35 kids in that one-room schoolhouse, and as far as I can tell..she's still correcting my grammar. She got a wonderful education in a big class. Two, all the data shows that there are a lot of countries - I shouldn't say a lot - but there are at least a number of countries, particularly Japan and Taiwan, where class sizes are much larger than they are in - 20, 30, 40 percent larger - than they are in the United States, and yet on the standardized test students in Japan and Taiwan score better overall than students from the United States. Okay, is class size important, not important, if it is important why is it so important in America and less important in Japan? This is very complicated, confusing stuff. Bill?

HONIG: Well, actually class size is important. They have done some studies in Tennessee which was a very big control group in the whole state where they lowered class size at the early grades and they found it made a substantial difference as opposed to other strategies. So it was good evidence that it does matter. The Japanese example is a little tricky because Japan actually has as many teachers in a particular school as they do in the United States. They deploy them differently. They teach less and talk more about how to make the program better, so they have breaks when they do that. So it is just a different strategy.

ROBINSON: I see. You are not saying there are more administrators per..

HONIG: No, these are teachers. And the fact that California has a lower ratio, or did until just recently than Japan, we will see what happens after this latest boost in class size. And the other problem in the United States is we have such a diverse population. Japan has got a monolithic population. We are trying to educate a lot of different kinds of people, different languages, all these additional burdens, and I think that does make a difference as far as who you have in the school. Finally, there is a lot of countries that actually have much larger class sizes in the United States. You picked the two examples that are the out-lyings, but if you looked at the data, the United States in pretty much in the middle. But more than that, California lags they rest of the country whereas we spend substantially lower than the rest of the country, and have had the largest class sizes in the whole United States, and that is one of the reasons Governor Wilson's push has been so popular, I think, is because..

ROBINSON: Because he's pushed to make the..

HONIG: To make the lower class sizes. To give money for lower class sizes, at least in the first grades or early grades is important because - we just - teachers are facing these large classes and they know there is a problem. The final issue is if you at a private school, and a lot of people like private schools, the class sizes in most private schools are much lower. That is one of the advantages and that is one of the attractions that people look to.

ROBINSON: Okay, so you are telling me that as a matter of fact this isn't all the complicated? This is one of those things in education that is pretty simple. You did the test. You discover that smaller classes of students do better.

HONIG: Well, they do better if the curriculum is done properly. I'll let Maureen...

DIMARCO: Yes, that is that is the point I was ready to really disagree with, but I was surprised I know that we do agree. First of all, the one thing I will take issue with is the study that Bill cited that from Tennessee is very flawed, and indeed if you read into the study you will find that they did not use a consistent methodology, and they took out the students who weren't doing well in the smaller class sizes to show that the small class sizes did work. The re is not, in my opinion, a substantive body of research that shows that class size solely will make a dramatic impact on student achievement. Now that ought to get us a lot of letters from unhappy teachers my having said it. Now having said all that I would still obviously prefer to have my child in a smaller class. It is an emotional issue. I just have - I have to believe that it means my child may get more time with the teacher, but Bill really has a major point. If you had 30 kids in a room or you had 10 kids in a room and the teacher teaches exactly the same way at the board, only talking on, and doesn't spend time with the children it makes no difference. The quality of the instruction is not determined by the size of the audience. What we have found is that small class size combined with the right curriculum makes a dramatic difference particularly in the area of reading instruction in the early grades. And in fact in California when Governor Wilson did class size reduction on such a massive scale the class size reduction which got all the headlines..

ROBINSON: Can you just describe the class size reduction? That took place recently, just the last couple of years.

DIMARCO: Yes, it is just being implemented this year. California's economy had recovered, we finally had enough dollars the Governor could look at a really substantive reform, everybody had wanted certainly emotionally to be able to reduce class sizes to some degree, and what we found was our number one issue in the state were our abysmal reading scores. California was last in the nation on the National System of Educational Progress. It was a horror to find that out. We looked at what things you needed to do that we could find in the research, and there is very substantive research that has been done, to improve those reading scores. If the child doesn't get through that gateway skill at the beginning the rest of your educational system isn't going to happen. The most important thing we found was that we needed to have systematic and explicit skills instruction in beginning readers. There is a whole number of things that go into that. So we put money into training teachers, to understand that we put enormous amounts of money into new textbooks so that they would have the proper materials, and we found that when class sizes were smaller in those early grades, that a teacher who is well trained with the right materials, then we really did have that attention. So it is a..

ROBINSON: And you've data on that now? There is data coming back from the California schools?

DIMARCO: Right. We are starting to get some of that. What I am trying to say is that class size reduction was a part of the Governor's reading initiative in California. It was not a thing unto itself. It was a tool, the most expensive one in the package.

ROBINSON: It was imbedded in a broader..

DIMARCO: Right. It was a tool that was very, very specifically directed at early grade reading instruction.

ROBINSON: More money, smaller classes but is it possible that these are only superficial fixes for a much bigger and deeper problem?

ROBINSON: I went to public schools and they were good schools, and in my lifetime, the teachers - some of the teachers who taught me tell me now that the kids are jumpier, that their parents drop them off early in the morning before school has opened, now the are being charged more with babysitting, that the kids aren't getting help at home with the, and is it, are we asking to bring into the schools solutions to problems that are actually arising at the home? Is that part of what is going on here? And is that part of the dissatisfaction with schools that the American society itself has changed so dramatically?

DIMARCO: There is no question that we have over the period of particularly since World War II ever increasingly asked of our schools that they fix everything. I think that probably it was President Bush who put it best when he was talking about establishing our goals for 2000. He said a child spend only 9% of his or her life in school from the ages of birth to age 18. 91% of that child's life is not at school. Well, all the things that happen in that 91% come with that child, the effects of it to the school and there is no question it is a much different job. The children are coming from those backgrounds. But what is interesting with all the diversity and all those different factors, if you look at the studies that have been done with parents, with the general public, you will find an unbelievable unanimity of opinion and desire. What they want from their schools is best summed up in the Public Agenda Report "First Things First." They said..

ROBINSON: Which report was that?

DIMARCO: Public Agenda Foundation out of New York. It is a very fine, bipartisan organization. And the public said overwhelmingly there are two prerequisites to having a quality educational system that they must see in place before they can buy and support the rest of it. One is safety, order and discipline. In other words education does not occur if those schools are not safe, if there isn't order, if there isn't discipline. And the second is a solid foundation of basic skills, and parents did not believe that children were getting that in reading and writing and in particular, mathematics. So those things unify us as a country in spite of all of all those other factors, and what we know is that when you do that well you focus on what you should be doing in school those factors become minimal in their impact. They are still there.

ROBINSON: So you don't think this is hopeless? The public schools can handle this gigantic task?

HONIG: It's kind of they have to if we are going to survive as a country. But let me build on..

ROBINSON: You anticipate my next question which is vouchers.

HONIG: Let me build on what Maureen was saying because I agree mostly with what she is saying that if you can't pull these - part of the schools have to deal with children who aren't as self-disciplined as they were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, you get that from veteran teachers. So we've got to deal with that. The schools have got to set it up so we basically socialize children so they will try and they'll focus. But there is a curricular issue here. If you don't teach them to read properly - we've already applied what we know about teaching reading early - you've got a large number of children, indigestible children in the system, who start to rebel, act out, and basically pull the whole thing down. If 30 or 40% of your kids can't read by the third or fourth grade, you are gone. What is going to happen to the whole classroom, the curriculum, it all gets dragged down. That is what's going on and that is not dependent on background. Totally. It is - you can -- schools who apply what we know get 95%, 90% of the kids to read grade level material so that is something schools can do.

ROBINSON: Regardless of background?

HONIG: Regardless of background, it doesn't matter. They've done studies in..

ROBINSON: That is an amazing fact.

HONIG: They've done studies for inner-city kids in Texas and Virginia, Connie Jewel did this, where the children were taught properly. They could hear and process the sounds, they were taught phonics, they got practice in it, they got automatic in it, by the third grade the vocabularies came up with the rest of the country, surpassed the rest of the country - the ones that got that. The ones that didn't, that weren't taught properly they floundered and were a problem. So if we can apply what we know about these basic skills which the parents want and the country needs and the schools adjust to that and start doing that in every school we start to get results.

ROBINSON: And the basic skill is reading?

HONIG: I think in elementary school if you can't learn to read, everything else falls.

ROBINSON: So have the two of you - would the two of - it seems to me we're kind of teasing something out here - would the two of you agree that you can find a lever, "Find me a lever and a place to stand and I can move the world," said Archimedes. That very young kids and reading, if you have to focus on one problem that is the one problem to focus on?

HONIG: Yes, that is a problem you have to focus on because if they don't get that then they don't get math as well because of the language, they don't get..

ROBINSON: Reading comes first.

DIMARCO: Absolutely, it has to..

HONIG: Right but it is necessary but not sufficient. If you don't get reading then nothing else, every thing else is difficult

DIMARCO: That is why you call it the gateway skill. It is the one you must achieve in order to be able to branch to the others.

ROBINSON: And you must achieve it by what grade? Bill, you said something..

HONIG: Well, actually, if..

ROBINSON: Is there a break point?

HONIG: There is several of them. There is a break point in Kindergarten about processing sound - we can talk a little more about the details if you would like to..

ROBINSON: I would like to, yes.

HONIG: There is a break point in first grade if you are not decoding words and can't read-sound out a word basically by mid-first you are probably not going to read unless somebody helps you, and by the end of first if you are not reading grade level at least according to most studies and there is no good intervention only 1 out of 8 children who gets out of first grade not being able to read is going to read grade level ever.

ROBINSON: Lots of public schools are lousy but lots of private schools are just fine which brings us to vouchers.

ROBINSON: So the Governor says we will find the lowest achieving 5% of kids in California schools and I will give the parents of those kids three choices: they can let the kid stay in that school, they can move the child to any public school within the same school district or they can take the average per pupil cost at the grade level, well you both know the numbers to the penny, but it would be around $2000 for most grade levels and use that as a voucher to send the child to any school the parent chooses. Jewish, Catholic, secular, any school the parent chooses, but only for the bottom performing 5% of kids. This would be a major experiment in the voucher direction, let's put it that way. You are in favor?

HONIG: As Maureen said earlier, we already do this with Special Education students who have particular needs. I think you can put children who are in the bottom 5%, whatever it is it is not working to have special schools..

ROBINSON: They have special schools almost by definition.

HONIG: I just would like to see the competition in a whole variety of ways. When you go into some of our inner-cities and the schools there with given all the politics of big districts and everything that takes the energy away from focusing on performance and quality curriculum, I will just be honest, I am appalled at some of the things that are going on in those schools. There are just - those kids are not getting a good education. If it takes something more radical to shake that system up and make sure there is a push for performance we should do a lot of it. What I am worried about is people will think if we do vouchers we've solved the problem. That is going to help some kids. It is going to put some pressure on, there is going to be some spaces in private schools or religious schools but not that much because they are crowded right now. So if that doesn't..

ROBINSON: So you wouldn't oppose a baby step in that direction?

HONIG: I wouldn't oppose a baby step, but I would oppose just doing that and not concentrating on curriculum, instruction and assessment in these areas.

DIMARCO: Two important points, Peter. First of all, I want to get the scope of this in some perspective. In California, they are trying this experiment, if it passes, we have about 5-1/2 million children in public schools, we have about 500,000 in private schools, even if the private schools could magically double their capacity overnight you would only be talking about taking the public school enrollment down to about 5 million from 5-1/2. And when you look at the growth which is often close to 100,000 new students a year I think people have to stop seeing this as sort some of magic panacea. Second point I would want to say is that I do believe as a taxpayer now I am going to speak that when you take my tax dollar and they say they are going to spend it on education I am for that, but I also have a right I believe as a taxpayer to have some accountability for how my dollar is spent. So I don't believe that you should be able to take your voucher off to the Hatred Plus School where they will teach you some awful, terrible, anarchist thing. I think there has to be a little control here. When you take public dollars and they go into a private system normally I want some fiscal accountability, I want to know that they didn't spend the money on red Ferraris and the kids didn't get textbooks, I want to make sure that there is some standard of education for the teachers, I want to make sure that there is some minimal level of accountability and that the curriculum is there.

ROBINSON: Maureen and Bill, thank you very much.

HONIG: Thank you.

DIMARCO: My pleasure.

ROBINSON: We talked about a range of issues. Money, class size, reading instruction, but what I myself found striking was this: Two education professionals thoroughly imbued in the ethic of public schools both said they want our public schools to face more competition. Now they want the competition limited, they want it licensed, they want it monitored, but they want competition. Well, our public schools certainly need something. In a survey of public seniors more than a quarter couldn't name the countries that border the United States. I am Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us. Come to think of it, before next week's show I might fly down for a few days of sun and some warm, Carribean breezes in Saskatoon.

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