Commentary

Without Raw Materials, Schools Can't Produce Quality

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One of the virtues of free public education has been the public's freedom to criticize it. And although I believe that public involvement has, on balance, introduced a note of sanity and common sense into the debate we call "education," it does seem to me that lately educators have been getting more than their share of lumps. Our critics tell us that Johnny can't read, Mary can't write, and the teacher can't do either. Our seers tell us that we are losing our technological edge to Japan. Our prophets claim that we are failing to teach values and morals. Surely some of these critics are sincere.

But many are not. Too many of our critics are more concerned with their pocketbooks than with Johnny's skills; with weaponry than with the discovery and application of knowledge; with preaching rather than teaching. Those who complain about Johnny's lack of skill often advocate massive cuts in educational spending. Those warning us of imminent technological decline often advocate massive cuts in graduate and undergraduate education, as if these factors were unrelated. Those who complain most about the lack of values in our schools are more than willing to ignore the values that are taught and to impose their own values on other people's children.

But not all of our critics are hypocrites, and it would be hypocritical of us to ignore those who are sincere. Too many children are failing to reach minimal levels of academic performance. Too many teachers are burned out or otherwise unprepared for the vicissitudes of today's classrooms. The lure of learning is losing out to the heroin of television. There are severe shortages of teachers in mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. The Japanese are leaving us behind. Our critics are right: Free public education today faces critical qualitative deficiencies.

It could not be otherwise, because free public education was never designed to deliver quantity with quality. It was designed to deliver equity. It was asked to provide every child with a chance to obtain an education. This imperative has been realized. We are the first nation in the history of the world to give everyone a chance for an education. No critic can demean or deny the significance of this achievement.

Our critics should not be surprised that this achievement came at the expense of quality. Public expenditures for education over the past century have never been sufficient to increase opportunity and maintain quality too. Even the best public schools have had to endure a reduction in quality as their doors opened to increasing numbers of students from increasingly diverse backgrounds. But even the Boston Latin School was never asked, or expected, to compete with Phillips Andover Academy. Andover was expected to produce its hand-crafted diamonds, but the Latin School was expected to mass-produce bricks.

For over one hundred years, free public education has been making bricks, and making them without straw. The amazing thing is that we could make bricks at all, let alone in ever-increasing numbers. But more bricks were made, and they were made by speeding up the assembly line despite a lack of sufficient raw materials. The result was reduction in unit quality.

But now our critics say that our bricks are not good enough. We are told that our bricks do not meet specifications we were never asked to achieve. We are told that our bricks lack straw. And they do. Free public education is in-capable of providing quality and quantity on a mass scale. And the public, in its haphazard wisdom, is right to expect us to provide quantity with quality. Our bricks deserve straw.

The challenge for American education for the remainder of this century is to provide quantity and quality simultaneously. As a profession and as a nation, we must be the first to achieve mass education through individual instruction. Only by fusing quantity and quality can we keep ahead of international competitors. Only by fusing quality with quantity can we finally minister to the affective needs of our students. Only by bringing quality into mass education can we ensure either effectiveness or sanity in our schools.

Our bricks need straw. But just when the public is clamoring for straw, Washington asks us to make bricks without clay. This policy undermines public confidence in free public education. How can we make good bricks if our brickmaster tells our customers that he buys his bricks from a competitor who has plenty of straw? Actions like these, actions which subsidize private schools while reducing support for public schools through block grants and voucher systems, do not promote competition but destroy it.


The Reagan administration is proposing a two-tiered education market where the affluent and elite attend one set of schools while those who have the most to learn are consigned to another. A two-tiered education system is not what free public education is about. It is not even what America is about. As a nation, we have labored for over a century to provide equity in education. Now our government says that quality should accrue to the elite while everyone else gets something different.

Educational quality is the issue of the 80's. And if it were not the issue, we would need to make it the issue. But it is the issue because it is being thrust upon us every day. Every day, honest and hypocritical critics alike are holding us responsible for the failure of free public education to achieve the quality of expensive private education. Every day, the public asks why our bricks have no straw. Over and over, the White House says we can improve the quality of our bricks by buying them from our competitors. But even our best critics miss the point: We must have more straw for our bricks.

We happen to have the kind of problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. Reduce the teacher's workload, make individual instruction possible, and the result will be an improvement in educational achievement, student motivation, teachers' vitality, and student deportment. Increase teachers' salaries and the result will be an improvement in the supply of teachers in technical subjects and in the quality of teachers at all levels. There is nothing amazing about what happens when straw is added to bricks.

But straw costs money, and money is something our federal government says it does not have. Yet, while claiming poverty, it proposes to shift funds from the public to the private sector. Then it justifies this creeping socialism in the name of "tax reform" and "stimulating competition." Meanwhile, our government continues to attack us for failing to make improvements that cost money when these are the very improvements that could allow us to become competitive. Such a policy is neither enlightened nor sincere.

As educators, we must remind state and federal legislators that they are responsible for providing straw. We must remind legislators and the public that a two-tiered educational system is not the American plan, but the European plan; and that where it thrives, there also thrives stratification and class struggle along Marxist lines. Equity is still important, but we must remind others and ourselves to add quality to equity. And we must be willing to persuade, cajole, seduce, or compel authorities to give us the necessary resources.

The teacher/student ratio for children with learning disabilities is between 5.5 to 8.5 students per teacher, and this is maintained, by law, to ensure that children with learning disabilities can be all that they can be. Why then do we endure classes of 20, 25, 30, or more children per teacher with those with learning abilities? Do they not also deserve the chance to be all that they can be? Doesn't society deserve the benefit of their achievements?

Education cannot be substantially improved unless government, including the federal government, makes a major new commitment to education--as major as that to defense. Or, as Senator Charles Sumner said it, "Education is a surer defense of liberty than a standing army." My bottom line for defense, as well as for education, continues to be that every child deserves individual instruction. To make good on that or any future, we must have straw for our bricks.

Vol. 01, Issue 32, Page 24

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