In his State of the State Address on March 12, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich outlined three education initiatives: increasing the school readiness of at-risk children, expanding the state’s teaching corps, and increasing opportunities for parental involvement in schools.
All three initiatives aim at destinations few would disagree the state needs to reach. His choice of paths to get there, however, demonstrates a preference for uninspired, even timid, approaches that hardly fit the “make no small plans” motto the Governor touted in his address.
Research confirms the importance of having children enter school “ready to learn”–able to recognize letters of the alphabet and numbers, for example, and with language skills, social skills, and a motivation to learn.
It is also true that identifiable groups of children are especially “at risk” for being ill-prepared to learn. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, children born in poverty, to single mothers, to mothers whose primary language is not English, and to mothers who did not graduate from high school are especially at risk.
The Governor is on solid ground, then, by emphasizing the importance of school preparedness. The foundation gives way, however, when he proposes universal preschool as the solution.
“Since the 1960s,” reports Darcy Ann Olsen for the Cato Institute, “hundreds of privately and publicly funded early intervention programs have failed to significantly benefit participating children.”<1> Studies have repeatedly shown that the country’s largest and best-known preschool program, Head Start, does not do what it was developed to do, which is to remove the gap in academic achievement between children from low-income and higher-income families.
“Mission creep” may be one reason for the program’s failure. Although Head Start is widely perceived as an education program, it is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, not the Department of Education. Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, noted a 1979 proposal to transfer Head Start to the Department of Education was blocked by child development advocates “adamant that Head Start not become an education program.”
Head Start provides children from poor families with nutritional, health, and social services at a cost of almost $6,000 per child per year. It has “produced woefully little by way of achievement gains,” according to Finn. There is no reason to believe an Illinois-specific preschool program aimed at at-risk children would fare any better.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act repeats more than 100 times a requirement that “scientifically based research” support all school practices receiving federal subsidies. If Governor Blagojevich is counting on federal funding support for his universal preschool plan, he may be sorely disappointed. Even the Head Start program itself faces a reauthorization battle in Congress this year.
Finally, it would seem nothing short of irresponsible for the Governor to propose handing Illinois’ children over to the public education bureaucracy even sooner than they are now. The public schools in this state do a remarkably poor job educating their students–especially the at-risk students the Governor quite rightly deems most in need of help.
Barely half of the state’s Hispanic and African-American students graduate from high school; barely one-third of its eighth-grade students performed at or above “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math and science tests in 2000. It approaches child abuse to consider turning our youngest and most vulnerable children over to a bureaucracy so incapable of preparing them for productive and fulfilling futures.
The Teaching Corps
“Without quality teachers,” Governor Blagojevich explained in his March 12 address, “every educational initiative in the world won’t succeed.”
Education researcher William L. Sander of the University of Tennessee agrees. “The biggest factor affecting student achievement is teacher effectiveness,” his research finds. Class-size effects and differences in the ethnicity and family income of students fade into insignificance, Sander says, when compared to teacher effects.<2>
Governor Blagojevich’s proposal–scholarships for college juniors and seniors who agree to five-year teaching assignments in the public schools–is unlikely to improve the quality of the state’s teaching corps. Theoretically, better students enrolled in teacher training programs might be more inclined to teach in difficult-to-fill posts if they were offered a $5,000 scholarship for doing so. But there is scant research evidence to support that claim.
Better methods are available to improve the quality of the Illinois teaching corps–and, more importantly, to increase teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom, an issue the Governor does not address.
Improving the state’s alternative certification program would make the teaching profession more attractive to persons from other careers. According to Dr. C. Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information and coauthor of a state-by-state study of alternative teacher certification,<3> alternative-route teachers are more likely to accept positions where the demand for qualified teachers is greatest: in inner cities, in rural areas, and in subject areas such as math and science. These teachers also tend to be older, to be men, and to be people of color–especially important for bringing diversity to a teaching profession that is overwhelmingly white and female.
Getting better-qualified teachers will make little difference if those teachers are required to teach using ineffective methods. Fortunately, a large body of research documents what works in classrooms. We know, for example, that reading is more effectively taught through phonics instruction than “whole language.” We know that teacher-centered instruction–where knowledgeable teachers transmit their knowledge and information to students–is more effective than child-centered methods, where teachers merely “assist” students in the discovery of knowledge for themselves.
Governor Blagojevich should consider ways to encourage schools to adopt research-based methods of instruction. That requires accountability for results, which requires competition and choice in education.
Encouraging Parental Involvement
Governor Blagojevich’s final education-related proposal is aimed at encouraging parents to get more involved in their children’s educations–without doubt a worthy goal. But the Governor’s recommendations–more unpaid leave time for parent-teacher conferences, a Web-based system for posting grades and attendance information, and voice mail for teachers–reveal the Governor has no understanding of why most parents aren’t involved today.
Parents who enroll their children in private schools in Illinois spend more time participating in school activities than do parents whose children are in public schools. Do private school parents somehow have more time to be actively involved in their children’s education–or do they make more time, because private schools do a better job motivating parents than do public schools? Private schools create motivated parents … something the Governor’s proposal cannot do.
Public schools tend to discourage parental involvement. School board members or school system bureaucrats make nearly all of the decisions that matter: They assign children to schools based on where their parents live, they set the length of the school day and school year, and they select the textbooks, the curriculum, and other inputs into the child’s schooling. In many schools, teachers are required to be available to parents only on designated teacher conference days. Parents are discouraged from helping students with their homework, because they might teach children to arrive at answers in a way that differs from the method their teachers prefer.
Good schools promote parental involvement by providing greater access to teachers and administrators and by being more responsive to parents’ advice and expressions of concern. And good school systems empower parents to make the decisions most important to their children’s future.
Requiring employers to give their employee-parents three days of unpaid leave “to devote exclusively to meeting with their children’s teachers and doing the little things that every parent would like to do but never seem to get the chance” changes none of this. It is a silly, feel-good proposal that can’t be policed (how on Earth can the Governor guarantee parents will use their three days’ leave “exclusively” for being more involved in their children’s educations?) and won’t make a difference.
A Web-based system to give parents access to information about their children’s classroom activities is a good idea … when employed by schools that genuinely want to share information with parents. Scores of private-sector firms already provide such information systems,<4> and school systems nationwide that value parent input have found ways to establish such systems without the intervention of their Governors.
Governor Blagojevich also wants the state to fund voice mail boxes for every teacher, “so parents can leave messages and have their calls returned.” I’ve never seen a voice mailbox yet that can guarantee a call will be returned. The Governor is merely proposing to spend money on technology … not create incentives for parents to become more involved or school systems to become more responsive.
Wanted: Bold Proposals
If the Governor is sincerely interested in bold and proven methods for encouraging parents to be more involved in their children’s education, he must embrace parental choice.
Since 2000, the National Center for Education Statistics has tracked data on school choice and parental satisfaction. The data show the more choices parents have for their children’s education, the more satisfied they are with the schools their children attend and the school’s teachers, academic standards, and discipline.
An October 2000 report for the Cato Institute, prepared by educational consultant Philip Vassallo<5>, notes parents of children in school choice programs:
- are more involved with their children’s academic programs;
- participate more in school activities;
- believe their child’s choice school is safer, better disciplined, and has better instruction than the child’s previous school;
- are more satisfied with their children’s education in a choice program; and
- are likely to re-enroll their children in the choice program.
“Once parents assume the responsibility of advocating for and supporting their children’s education,” Vassallo writes, “they will become partners with educators to create the schools their children need.”
Governor Blagojevich believes the hard-working people of Illinois “want us to be a state that once again dreams big dreams and tries daring solutions.”
Universal preschool, scholarships for college students, and three days of unpaid leave don’t qualify.
No proposal could be more daring, nor more likely to reach the education destinations to which the Governor wishes to take us, than a statewide school voucher program.
Building on the experience of parental choice programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and elsewhere, The Heartland Institute has already drafted a voucher proposal the Governor could take up as his own.<6> Adopting such a plan would allow Illinois boosters to one day say:
In Illinois, we don’t try to improve education by spending hard-earned tax dollars on government programs that don’t work. Instead, we put parents in charge.
In Illinois, we let parents choose, teachers teach, and students learn!
Diane Carol Bast is vice president of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Chicago. Her email address is [email protected]. For further information, contact Heartland Public Affairs Director Greg Lackner at 312/377-4000, email [email protected].
4 Prominent among them is Folsom, California-based PowerSchool, at http://www.powerschool.com, which offers an easy-to-use, real-time information source for parents, students, and educators.