Education Commentary

Proposing ‘Educational-Impact Statement’

By Richard Sagor — October 25, 1989 4 min read

Many educators have found themselves frustrated at times with the never-ending clamor for new and bigger school programs. They may have even wished they had the prerogative to just say “no” to new curricular mandates from their district or state legislature.

And the parade of petitioners demanding time for programs covering everything from driver safety to aids is accompanied by an independent chorus of observers berating us for the disappointing performance of our students on international education assessments. Is there a connection between these phenomena?

In education, as in most other endeavors, the most critical resource is time. As more and more entrees have been added to our educational smorgasbord, the time available to master the basic curriculum has, at best, remained constant. If we must adjust to eating twice the amount of food in the same amount of time, we had better be prepared for indigestion.

Although in some cases new programs have been backed with additional fiscal resources, rarely has the school year or day been expanded, or the required curriculum reduced. The result has been a constant erosion of the time available for the core disciplines. Under these circumstances, we should expect diminished quality of instruction and declining achievement in such areas as mathematics, science, English, and geography--unless, of course, we believe that we haven’t been using our time efficiently in the first place.

Decisionmakers in education were not the first group of public managers to encounter the phenomenon of expanding expectations in an environment of static or declining resources. Perhaps we should take a lesson from our colleagues in land and resource planning.

Our national forests, among other jurisdictions, are managed in accordance with a multiple-use philosophy. Land that is preserved as wilderness is land that cannot be used for timber harvest and mining. Likewise, areas set aside for snowmobiling and motorboating are unavailable for the enjoyment of quiet solitude. When an applicant requests a change in the use of land in a forest, he is required to file and defend a detailed environmental-impact statement.

The recognition that we can’t have it all is as valid in educational enterprises as it is in other areas managed by government agencies. Might we not, then, consider requiring an “educational-impact statement” when new education programs are proposed?

An educational-impact statement would require petitioners to respond to four crucial questions regarding their proposals:

How much time and what other resources would be required to provide this program or service?

How much time--hours in the school day or days in the school year--would be added to the existing schedule to accommodate the program?

How much less time should be spent on existing priorities?

What is the anticipated effect on student performance of any reductions?

Since the issues raised by a sponsor’s replies to these questions would need to be considered separately from the merits of the proposal itself, the educational-impact statement would have to be submitted prior to an examination of the proposal’s content.

If, after weighing this information, policymakers chose to institute a new or expanded program, they would be doing so with full public knowledge of that decision’s likely consequences.

It is reasonable to anticipate two criticisms of such a procedure. First, some educators might be concerned that requiring educational-impact statements would add another layer of paperwork to the desks of people who are already busy. And indeed it would, just as the requirement for environmental-impact statements has increased bureaucratic paperwork and procedures. But there is a consensus among policymakers that some extra time invested in the deliberative process is a small price to pay when the health of our environment is at stake. Shouldn’t the same rationale hold true if it is the quality of our children’s education that is at risk?

Second, some may worry that such a policy would have the effect of sustaining traditional programs while discouraging innovative initiatives. This need not be the case.

If innovators are deterred from pursuing new programs by the procedural requirements of the educational-impact statement, then those afraid of institutionalizing a conservative bias will have had their fears realized. In the eyes of many observers, however, the problem with American education has not been a shortage of fresh ideas but rather the apparent unwillingness of decisionmakers to shed time-honored yet ineffective practices. Many have found the political cost of cutting programs simply too high to incur.

Our habit of continuing to add new programs while holding on to all the old ones doesn’t support innovation. Rather, it invites cynicism from critics, who can readily see its twin effects of diluting the time spent on the traditional curriculum and allowing most of the new initiatives to fail as a result of inadequate nurturing.

The educational-impact statement would be a force for progressive change if it provided decisionmakers with a rationale for saying “no” to the continuation of established programs--or the creation of new ones--that are not appropriate for contemporary students.

Now, more than ever, our curricula must be free to evolve to meet future needs. The educational-impact statement could be an important tool in crafting sound programs from both new and old materials.

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Proposing ‘Educational-Impact Statement’