School Figures Throws Light on Reform Issues

Published February 1, 2004

School Figures: The Data behind the Debate
Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa
Hoover Institution Press, 2003, $15.00 paperback, 342 pages
ISBN: 0-8179-2822-7

This new book from Hoover Institution scholars Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa is packed with informative data tables and graphs that are organized to support some 39 propositions about U.S. K-12 education. The propositions are grouped into six different issue areas: schools, teachers, achievement, expenditures, school reform, and students and their families.

Readers will find some of the propositions surprising, but the supporting data and graphs allow them to make up their own minds about the issues covered in the book. The book is well worth its modest $15 price just to have so much well-organized education data readily available, with Web links to many original sources.

School Figures: The Data behind the Debate should be widely read by policymakers and interested parents, first to make them more conscious of the assumptions they are making when they advocate specific policy changes; and second, to help them become better-informed about K-12 education in general–about demographics, costs, student testing and achievement, alternative education, and public school reform endeavors.

“[P]articipants in discussions about students and their educational performance and environment cannot enter into a sound debate without first stipulating the facts,” write the authors. “In this volume, we hope to establish the baseline for discussion and debate by providing relevant data in the form of words, graphs, and tables.”

Assumptions Drive Reform Proposals

As in other fields, recommendations for policy changes in the public education system are founded on a series of underlying assumptions about conditions in the system and the way the system responds to changes in the amount and quality of resources made available to it. For example, the call for higher levels of per-pupil spending is based on the assumption that spending more money on education will result in improved student performance.

Other commonly held assumptions about conditions in the public education system and how it works are:

  • There is a perennial shortage of teachers.
  • Teacher certification is a guarantee of teacher quality.
  • Across-the-board salary increases for teachers will result in improved student achievement.
  • Reducing class sizes will result in improved student achievement.
  • Federal education expenditures have improved student achievement, particularly in the case of low-income children.
  • Public schools are locally controlled.

But, as Ira Gershwin wrote so lyrically in Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

“In some cases, the facts fully support the proposition,” write Skandera and Sousa. “[I]n other cases, our factual finding may startle the reader–the accepted norm may not be factual and, hence, should not be accepted.”

Skandera and Sousa are research fellows at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, where Sousa also is senior associate director. Early versions of a few of their propositions appeared in School Reform News in 2002.

Proposition: Homework Provides Clear Results for All Students and Compelling Results for High School Students

Experts disagree on the value of homework, but a strong correlation is apparent between scores in National Assessment of Educational Progress tests and the amount of time spent doing homework.

Proposition: Television Viewing Is a Home-based Habit That Affects Educational Achievement

The more hours a student spends watching television each night, the less time is available not only for homework, studying, or reading but also for sleeping. A 1990 state-by-state assessment of math proficiency showed decreased math proficiency with increased television viewing.

Proposition: Public Schools at One Time Were Locally Controlled; This Is Changing. Funding Provides One Piece of Evidence.

Before the New Deal era, public schools were locally funded and controlled, with 83 percent of funding raised locally. Now, that local portion has shrunk to just 44 percent, with the state providing the lion’s share of school funding and shifting the locus of control accordingly.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].