When More Isn’t Better

Monday, October 30, 2000

T

he “more is better” approach is common to government projects. If mind-altering drugs are bad, then regulating them is good, and the more laws there are, the better, despite evidence that the original set did not have the desired effect of reducing drug use. If guns are bad and gun control is good, regardless of the fact that some gun control is not working to reduce gun-related crime, more antigun laws will do the job. Thomas Sowell calls this “the vision of the anointed”—the “socially responsible” logic of politicians and bureaucrats that is impervious to facts and clear evidence. The more is better hypothesis is applied in at least two separate ways to schools: more time is better, and more money is better. There are fallacies within each of these assumptions.

Days of Our Children’s Lives

School takes up more of our children’s lives every year, and legislation is proposed at the local, state, and national levels every year to enable it to take even more. The logic is that because education is good in principle, and schooling is the way to create education, more schooling will necessarily create more education. Thus it follows in current logic that, in light of the evidence that education is not consistently occurring, more schooling should succeed where less has failed. These premises are false. With increasing demands on our children’s time by public schools, educational outcome, as determined by literacy and test scores, has not improved. What else do they need?

The “more is better” mind-set is applied in at least two separate ways to schools: more time is better, and more money is better. Neither is necessarily true.

One result of the assumption that more is better with regard to school is that many locales are attempting to make kindergarten mandatory. Other areas have established year-round schooling, and yet others have created longer school days. In other words, regardless of actual data, the results of the more is better assumption are becoming part of the entrenched wisdom of the system, and legislatures continue to put forth proposals that begin with the assumption that what is wrong with the system can be fixed by doing more of it.

Perhaps a more prevalent result of the more is better assumption is that many parents, naively assuming that the professional educators and lawmakers know what is best, tolerate outrages such as holidays being removed from the school calendar or school being extended into the summer season to make up for “snow days,” on the premise that hours spent in school are irreplaceable. Every schoolchild knows that this is silly. First, when holidays are taken from children, they are unlikely to be cooperative students on the days they spend at a desk instead of playing. Second, when holidays are taken from teachers, they are unlikely to have lesson plans developed to compensate for the transference of school days from early in the year to later in the year, and, indeed, even they are likely to harbor some resentment at being in the classroom when they had the expectation of being elsewhere on that day. The result is that children sit in schools for a legislatively mandated number of hours per week and days per year regardless of whether actual learning is occurring during any given hour or day.

The consequences of creating a rigidly structured system that correlates how much is learned with how many hours are spent in school reach into the life of the family. How many families must make difficult choices—made difficult, mind you, by the mistaken belief that legislators know what is best in the realm of education—to have one child, who may be in a different school, out on vacation while the other is in school or to have the parents off work on the holiday that the children are spending in school? It appears that the more is better assumption carries with it a corollary assumption that less time with family is not bad! Thus, our federal and state governments run up against a contradiction of their own creation: they espouse both the idea that more time is needed in the classroom and the idea that families should spend more time together. Whereas government officials are heard bemoaning the fate of the family in America, it is government policies that are separating children from their homes earlier and earlier, for more and more hours and days, and forcing two parents to work to make enough money to support these interventive programs.

There are even more negative effects of the more is better assumption: parents, trusting an educational system that has, after all, the benefit of experience and superior wisdom about such things, begin to doubt their ability to teach their own children. After all, how can one or two parents who have jobs, a home to care for, nurturance responsibilities toward one or more children, and countless other demands on their time teach children, especially if the professionals are struggling with the task? Of course, to some, since there is a huge system, for which they are already paying exorbitant amounts of money, already in place, why, indeed, should they take the time to learn to do such a thing?

But let’s examine this time-usage assumption. Children spend about six hours a day, five days a week, forty weeks a year in school. If an individual parent, who still had other responsibilities, were to make this sort of commitment, it would be Herculean. Looking at the actual time spent in the process of education during those legislature-mandated hours, however, it quickly becomes evident that the requirement is much less in an individual household, for an individual child, or a small number of children.

To begin, schools have to meet a certain set of requirements about saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing patriotic songs. They have to take attendance. There are announcements and administrative tasks to complete even before the ostensible task of teaching is allowed to begin. Generous figures place this at between one and two hours a day. Now our home school or private school is down to four or five hours, because it doesn’t have to do these things. The public school teacher is faced with 20 to 30 children of the same age but different patience levels, different learning aptitudes, different backgrounds, and different personal styles. At home, parents have one or a few children. Even with the worst possible variance in ages and temperaments, individualized attention can be given to each and energy spent on discipline is minimized. Thus children can, indeed, be working in their best modality, moving with their own individual needs and rhythms, and the parent-teacher can even be assumed to get something of his or her own done in this time, perhaps even paid at-home work, as the author did. Private schools obviously operate with more constraints than home schools, but even then, with fewer bureaucratic demands and more control over the demeanor of the pupils, time demands for activities other than teaching are minimized.

There is a widespread but mistaken assumption that if we simply pour more money into our schools our children will become better educated. But why should we assume that if $5,000 a year fails to educate students, then $10,000 will succeed? More money does not necessarily buy more education.

In practical terms, what this means is that, in the nonpublic setting, any given child need not spend time sitting through a lecture he is incapable of comprehending or a lecture for which she has no need. Assignments tailored to the student are vastly more efficient and can be significantly shorter—allowing a child to practice skills he finds difficult and to move ahead when ready. Individualized education allows each child to proceed at her own pace and not to spin her wheels on material that she is never going to learn at all. Home schoolers find that an hour or two a day suffices, even for large families, at the elementary level. At the high school level, perhaps twice as much time is required to allow for more detailed knowledge, more complex problems, and more demanding writing assignments. In the home school, time is not devoted exclusively to paper-and-pencil tasks but to a variety of learning and enrichment experiences, as well as maintaining the home itself. Private schools often have the same experience—that formal lessons can be confined to a few hours a day and that the balance of time can be allotted for individual projects or enrichment experiences. The bottom line in the allocation of time to education is that when students are allowed to work within their competence, to follow their interests, and when teachers are exclusively interested in imparting knowledge and encouraging learning, rather than creating conformity and regimentation, education is not a time-intensive project; neither does it demand full-time, exclusive adult attention.

Significantly, the more is better assumption starts from the assumptions that all children are created equal, that all teaching is equally effective, and that all work is equally valid for all students. If this were true, perhaps more of the same would indeed offer more benefits; but since it is false, just having children present for more hours is unlikely to get them better educated. More time does, however, allow for more social control of children and less parental influence.

Good Money after Bad

The more is better assumption is also applied to the financial aspect of the public school morass. The assumption states that if $5,000 a year fails to educate students, then $10,000 will succeed. If one computer in a school fails to educate students, then one in every classroom will succeed. If 1 teacher to 30 students fails to achieve education, then 1 to 29 will succeed. Taxpayers are made to dip more deeply into their pockets yearly for the education of children. The message is that if education is not happening, spending more money will automatically cause it to happen. It doesn’t matter so much how this money is spent, just that it is made available to educators. Some favor smaller class sizes, some more special services, others more field trips, and yet others better buildings. There is even one local district that has allocated money to loan every student in its high school a laptop computer for the duration of their enrollment. There is certainly no limit to how many different ways money can be spent on the education of children. Many of these ideas have validity—but they are not working.

In reality, it is neither difficult nor expensive to educate children. Given community resources such as libraries and museums, given certain basics such as books and paper and, perhaps, taking advantage of modern conveniences, such as a computer with Internet access, whether at home or at a local library, the home-based education of a child is a low-budget project. For example, history textbooks can cost as much as $100 each, but primary and secondary source material can be found at a library or even on the Internet, a resource that can be accessed at most libraries, and learning can be dramatically enhanced by students’ having to decide issues of right and wrong rather than having these fed to them, predigested by textbook authors. Thus, at no cost beyond a contribution to the library, whether voluntary or tax based, students can avail themselves of all that they need to gain a solid working knowledge of history. Most important, though, in the home school students learn how to learn and where to find information. A formal school setting requires more organization and setup, more space and supplies, but it is not the sophistication of the materials or the cost of the facility that creates education. Education occurs in the interface between mind and experience, and there are many means to that end.

It immediately becomes clear that the big costs of public schools are not in the learning materials themselves but in the maintenance and building of physical plants, in the salaries of teachers and support staff, and in the huge bureaucracy that administers all these layers. In fact, with the rise of mass education, as the number of students has increased, the number of teachers has increased less dramatically than the number of administrators. Thus, the ineffective education dollar has to cover a good deal more than the process of teaching children.

If more is better when it comes to spending money on education, then why do home schoolers do so well, coming from learning environments in which little money is spent? The reality is that the magnitude of the project is what costs money, not the process of education itself. When society tries to educate children in uniform groups with the demands for certain behaviors, certain rates of learning, certain production of work, certain length of school term, need is created for a structure—with corresponding rigidity and bureaucracy—with which to ensure the entirety of this process.

Consider that Illinois high schools spend an average of $10,019 per student yearly. The author, with three children currently in these institutions, contributes $1,200 annually in property taxes to high schools, $1,600 to grammar schools, and $120 to the local college. Given the return of this $2,920, the author is certain she could adequately provide educational experiences for three teenagers, as was the case several years ago when all three were home schooled, at a cost in the purchase of books and the taking of trips to museums and the like of less than $2,000 yearly for all three.

It takes more than money to produce education. It takes willingness to learn on the part of the students and knowledge of how to produce desired results on the part of the teachers. It takes flexibility within a system such that different children can be treated as individuals toward the goal of achieving those results. More money does not buy more education. Appropriate goals, relating strictly to academic as opposed to social goals, individualized lessons, and achievement-based placement are more likely to have the desired result. A karate school, for example, is not trying to make students into citizens—it is trying to teach them karate. Students learning karate must possess a great deal of discipline to achieve progress, but it is rare that their instructor spends an entire class period disciplining students. The discipline is built into the process—it is a natural part of the demand of the situation, and the pupils, who are there willingly, cooperate. If students were not learning karate, would we simply build a bigger facility or find a more costly instructor? No, but we would take our karate-lesson dollars elsewhere. The amount of money is not the issue. The market process by which consumers get what they pay for and pay for what they want is a significant missing ingredient in public schooling.

Schools call for more tax money every year—to purchase computers, to repair buildings, to hire more teachers or administrators, to purchase new equipment or textbooks, to perform research into why children fail to learn, to give more tests demonstrating pupil efficacy. The trend continues: however much money is spent, more is always demanded, and the bottom line—educational failure—although it may rise and fall, rarely changes substantially. Many children fail to achieve minimal literacy in public schools. Many others drop out. Still others leave believing there is something wrong with them that they could not meet the goals set forth by the system.

More tax dollars do not produce the goal of better education, nor do more tax dollars make children all alike. No amount of money will make a "one size fits all" system adaptive to individual needs.