'There Are Ideas On Which You Can Put Money That Make Sense'
Education Week: What should society be doing to solve the math and science problems? Where do we go from here and how do we get there?
Mr. Rutherford: Let me say that there are a lot of solutions being proposed, and a lot of them make some kind of sense when looked at individually. We say: "The teachers are not prepared, so let's give them some workshops." We say: "The materials aren't up to date, so let's develop some new ones."
Unfortunately, we are once again not being very systematic in our solutions. If you have a sore, put a Band-Aid on it. We are kind of patching things up. A state does one thing, but it doesn't do the others. Another state does something else. Individual actions are useful, but we haven't put them together with a coherence of any sort.
We haven't come close to seeing how we could explore technology to redesign the system to make up for its inherent weaknesses. If we can't fill the schools quickly with the kind of teachers that we want in the right numbers, then we might do something about the structure of the school.
Then I have to ask: Who is going to pay for all of this? I know that's the last thing you are ever supposed to say. Everybody prefaces their remarks with: "You shouldn't throw money at the problem."
The fact is, we are not capitalizing the reconstruction of the system. Everybody says, if teachers don't know something, let's give them some workshops. But we need to do a little arithmetic. Multiply the number of teachers by what it will cost to get them from where they are to where they ought to be, and we are talking big dollars. Everybody is pointing the finger at everyone else when it comes to paying. The states say they are going broke and they have to balance their budget. The local people gave up their tax base. The federal government is not enthusiastic about it and says it can't pay because these are "down" times.
Mr. Usiskin: It seems to me that there are certain problems that are best handled at the national level and others that are best handled locally.
Mr. McCurdy: For example?
Mr. Usiskin: We have a teacher-education problem--the question of supply and retraining. And we have a curriculum problem. It seems to me that the teacher-education problem would be more a local kind of problem. You want to retrain teachers who are in the school systems already, and the school system can identify its needs and what needs to be done.
The curriculum problem, however, is much more a national one. You don't really have the resources at the local level, even at the state level, to handle curriculum. But more important, you don't have the credibility. What is done in one state, even if it is good, is seldom copied by another state. So I think the curricular things are best done nationally.
I have another reason for saying that. It takes millions of dollars to produce a curriculum series before there is a book produced. We are talking about something that is much more expensive than retraining teachers for a local district or a state.
EW: Most of the states are now moving to deal with the problems. Are they taking the right steps? Do you think that any significant progress is going to be made at the state level?
Mr. Pewitt: It is a mixed story. You see the state of Florida, where you have a governor and elected leadership who understand the importance of this, and states like North Carolina and Arizona, where they really see this as the future. They are going for it.
But you have the Proposition 13 view, which is legitimate. The schools represent a problem. If you take a look at the administrative overhead in schools now, compared to when most of us went there, it is outrageous. You can say that it is federal requirements, it is this, that, and the other, but when you are sitting there looking at a bond issue, it's a problem. I look at the large numbers of administrators making salaries of $40,000 and $50,000 a year, while the teachers are making under $20,000. It is an inappropriate allocation of resources.
It is not more money, it is better management and focusing the resources on the classrooms. It is not just a simple increase of dollars. The educational system has to respond. It is too simple an answer to say more money is needed. It is a simple way for the media to express an issue as a confrontation where the confrontation doesn't really exist. It is just much too complicated.
Mr. Rutherford: Things move through in cycles. Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee loses because a committee defeats his proposal by one vote. He will be there next year, and even if he doesn't get that, he is going to get something. In the meantime, while the nea was effective in defeating the plan, they had a scare, and it is going to affect their attitude. If you watch that legislature for the next session, and the session after that, you will see some different things happening. The same would be true in Florida, in California, and North Carolina, where things are happening.
EW: So you really do think that significant progress can be made by the state legislatures and governors?
Mr. Rutherford: Yes, it can be, and it will be in some places. In a large number of places, they won't try very hard, and then in some places, they will try and fail. So we will have a spotty record. However, in some places you can make some advances, such as increasing requirements.
Mr. Aldridge: I think it is going to be a disaster in the states, because what I see happening are mainly political moves on the part of those who can benefit from the funds that would be used for these purposes. In Florida in particular, they have the university discipline departments exerting a great deal of influence to make sure the funds that are provided for teacher retraining fall into those departments and do not fall into some of the science-education groups. So you have a battle between those people.
You have state departments of education and some local schools that want to have inservice stuff of their own making, where they use their own staff--who themselves are not qualified--to train staff who are not qualified. You have all kinds of crazy things like that going on in curriculum development, where they produce trash that is of low quality. All of that mishmash of activity makes it appear they are addressing the problem, but in fact they are not.
EW: One of you said earlier that everybody agrees with the need to increase requirements. Is that so?
Mr. Pewitt: I wouldn't jump to that conclusion. Certainly, kids ought to come out of school in general knowing more than they are now expected to know. I don't know whether that takes more classroom time or not. I am not willing to make that leap of faith. I don't even know that they need to take more courses.
EW: But that is what the states are recommending.
Mr. Pewitt: They certainly ought to have a higher level of competence in these areas than they have now.
Mr. Usiskin: The problem that I see with just increasing requirements, and thinking that you have done the job because you have increased requirements, is that the problem is as much an elementary-school problem, maybe even more so for science, than a secondary-school problem.
I see states imposing either requirements or graduation tests, and these 11th-grade tests are what everyone would consider a student should know after the 8th grade. These tests are nothing more than a rote kind of processing.
Mr. Rutherford: What can state legislatures do? They have two choices. They can increase requirements, which is a way of signaling that they regard this matter to be important, because the requirements are only a sometime thing. In the New England states, for example, generally speaking, the requirements are low, but also the students in New England schools generally take more science and math than in other parts of the country. So there is not always a correlation, but it is a way of signaling that, yes, they want some mathematics, yes, they want this and that.
The other thing that they can do is try to require examinations. Otherwise, a state has a limited authority. They don't make up curriculum. Very few states have even thought about having a state syllabus. So I think raising requirements needs to be regarded not as a solution to the problem, but as the strongest signal you can have that the state legislators are taking a certain problem seriously and are doing what they are able to do besides spending money.
Mr. McClelland: I think you use what is happening as a basis for what you want to do. In fact, the state legislatures are motivated by the hue and cry today to do these things. That creates some opportunity to provide some leverage to see that you have qualified people, or to get them qualified. I think you use this movement.
Ms. Rowe: I'm puzzled about the levels of government and who pays, and what are the consequences. I have only begun to learn something about what those consequences are by serving on the commission in Florida. For example, we recommended, out of innocence, that for graduation we should now require three years of science and three years of math. When we finally had hearings in the legislature, all the recommendations of the commission were totally ignored. What it became was a battle of local versus state government, of who has the right to make that decision. I don't understand what happens here.
Mr. Pewitt: It is very simple. Every level of government wants to control, but have another level pay.
EW: What is the proper role for the federal government?
Mr. McCurdy: The federal government does have a role, but it is not going to provide the whole solution. It does have a responsibility to help in the area of curriculum and in encouraging development in that area. But what we do best at the federal level probably is to focus the debate and emphasize the problems.
Let me mention the particular pieces of legislation that have passed recently and some that are proposed. People on the [House] Education and Labor Committee and other people saw this issue developing. A wave developed and before it crested they got as much on it as quickly as they could. That is always a problem in politics. If you see a movement, you had better get your goodies in while you can. I think that bill [HR 1310] went too quickly and in too many different directions. There were too many specific things they were trying to accomplish at the same time. That wave, I think, is still coming and maybe we can work to refine these particular bills.
Mr. Rutherford: I worry that Congress is going to come up with too much, too soon. It will focus on money, and people will talk endlessly about how many dollars. What we need is a debate about the kinds of solutions. Then some pieces will disappear and some pieces will grow, and maybe we will have some kind of coherence.
Mr. McCurdy: We are crisis-oriented in politics and in government.
Mr. Rutherford: If we get a dollar number that is big, yet isn't big enough to really solve the problem, what it will do is lead people to believe that the problem has been recognized and solved, when in fact we don't know yet how these various parts will finally fit together.
Mr. Aldridge: Worse, they will say that we spent the money and nothing happened, which is exactly what will happen.
Mr. Pewitt: Generally, there are a few problems where a single national solution is appropriate. You want to go to the moon, there is only one way to do that. We don't need state programs to go to the moon. The federal government has a key role if you want to build a national defense, or if you want a national infrastructure for transportation. There is no a priori reason for some of these federal roles; it is the American tradition, the character of the American public and their expectations for what they want to be able to control.
When you get down to the education of school kids, the problems are in 17,000 school districts. And where you have multi-faceted problems, and each solution has to be tailored to the local situation--and it really does--the federal government does an extremely lousy job. As soon as we start putting too much money in there, we exercise too much control. In the areas of developing certain sequences of lessons to get across certain points, that is no problem. That task shouldn't be replicated throughout all the states. It would be inefficient and sort of stupid, and the states would not do it.
There is a federal role in here, but it is not setting requirements for graduation. It is not in getting involved in direct dealing with the salary issue. That is a negotiation that goes on between the teachers and the school board because it is a question of local costs, et cetera.
Mr. Usiskin: There are some subtle issues, and one of them is efficiency. I can recall, for example, in the late 1960's and early 1970's when behavioral objectives--which were then called "performance objectives" or "minimal competencies"--were mandated by the state of Illinois for every school district.
The waste of funds in school districts, each one of which was required to come up with its own set of these objectives, was absolutely silly. There are certain problems, some of them local or state problems, but if the solutions, or at least potential solutions, are not done at the national level, the process will be inefficient. After all, the publishing industry and the computer industry work nationally. They don't do a different thing for different states; they can't afford to do that. If we are talking about the fact that there is a cost to the taxpayer, whether it is local or national, sometimes you want to do it nationally only because it is more efficient.
Mr. Rutherford: Efficiency is not something that is characteristic of the education system, and probably can't be--maybe shouldn't be. One thing that we gain out of the messiness of 17,000 school districts is that we don't get quickly and uniformly locked into nonsense, which can also happen. I think we can tolerate a considerable amount of inefficiency, if we just don't totally give in to it. We have to look at the traditions and what is possible.
Mr. Pewitt: The fact of the matter is that there are few ideas on which you can put money that make sense. The system simply cannot absorb that much money right now, when you take a look at the number of things that we can do. There is no question about what we are going to do. The National Science Foundation program is going to go back into this business of research on how one teaches better. There is a program planned that has been presented to the Congress, and nsf is gearing up to implement that. It is a reasonable thing to do.
We can develop better materials for course content. We see a role for teacher incentives, including a Presidential award and teachers' honors workshops. I have heard little in the way of positive proposals that are not part of our present plan. The people who are to implement these programs are going to have $50 million next year for these activities.
It is clear that money is part of the solution. It is not clear that more money in the aggregate is what is required.
Mr. Aldridge: While we are on the federal role, I would like to say something positive about what the Administration is doing, and I wish that they would do it with an order of magnitude more support: the two nsf programs are currently in place.
The first, the one that will provide the Presidential awards for teachers, is going to be very important toward raising the status and the image of the teachers involved. I support that very strongly. I hope that that will continue and that it is something that we can do regularly.
The second thing is the materials-development program, which does involve, as I read the program announcement, teachers working with developers and teachers simultaneously being upgraded in their background while they assist in the development and implementation of new materials. If that really is what it means, and if it is done with the goal of producing some materials that could be disseminated nationally, in my judgment that kind of model would go a long way toward improving the situation.
Mr. Rutherford: I think this year's program is about the right magnitude that can be handled. nsf doesn't know enough yet. But as long as it has enough of the right elements in a cycle, there is something to be learned in another cycle, and a naturally healthy growth can take place as it begins to prove itself. I think the task would be to broaden it over the next couple of years.
I would say two things about curriculum development. One is having enough people in the process, so you not only have the scientists and the people who teach, but historians, philosophers, and other people who tend to look at these things in a somewhat different way. That is one safeguard.
The other is having enough different enterprises going on that there is an element of competition and overlap in choice. So the parents or the state, finally, can look at it and say, "That stuff may be beautiful according to the mathematicians, but it sure isn't what we think our kids need. But maybe this one over here, or this one, is more what we think." This is the sense of choice which the private sector, incidentally, is not providing. What the government can do, if it does it adroitly, is open up the choice.
Mr. Aldridge: I am supportive of those three programs, but I am very concerned that that program really does not address the retraining of the 60,000 teachers who need to be upgraded. It will require some federal money. One could calculate how much that would be, but it is not going to happen because there is a limit on the money this year.
Mr. Pewitt: That's what the science teachers of the country pay you to say. Let's be realistic, though: What has been proposed makes a lot more sense. We are not talking about generalities now. When it comes down to writing checks, you have to have pretty solid bases for arguing to actually write checks.
Mr. Aldridge: I can offer a very specific program where you can make some calculations on whatever it costs. You can retrain those teachers through three individually designed summer programs involving eight to 10 weeks for three summers, coupled with perhaps some Saturday and evening work during the year.
It is possible to retrain those people to where they will be very well qualified. You are talking about roughly 60,000 people. You can calculate how much that will cost, and you can do it. It can be done in a fellowship program of some sort. It would be very easy to design and implement such a program. It would be cost effective, and it would solve that particular problem, or at least it would address it.
Mr. Pewitt: That is an assertion that is not backed up by concrete facts. I cannot accept that that is in fact a true statement.
Mr. Aldridge: What's wrong with it?
Mr. Pewitt: To begin with, you don't have the specifics of what this is. Every state has different qualification standards for those teachers.
Mr. Aldridge: I said, individually designed programs to meet the requirements of that state.
Mr. Pewitt: If we are going to get around to designing specific programs for specific states, then you are into this area where the federal government does a lousy job. The states ought to be doing it. It is much more efficient for them to do than for us to do it at the national level.
Mr. Aldridge: "Individually designed program" means that a person applies for a fellowship for a program that that person designs for himself or herself, and enrolls in a college or university to develop to a point where he or she is qualified.
Mr. Rutherford: I think the colleges and universities don't have the programs tailored for a particular student who comes in to take them. They will give him the same old stuff that didn't work before.
Why don't we produce materials from which teachers can learn? Why not produce new modules? Why not produce videotapes? Why not produce things so that teachers can train themselves? Then they can go back to college and get some kind of counseling, or get help when they need it, but at much less cost than a program of sending everybody back to college for a year.
Ms. Rowe: We tried that approach in Florida, where all the money goes to the student in the form of tuition, and he can't get a good lab course in the night school.
EW: Most of the solutions that are being proposed seem in some way to require money. Is there or is there not a problem of financial resources?
Mr. Rutherford: There is definitely a financial problem. We are spending too much in the short run, but probably not enough in the long run.
Here is a $100-billion-plus industry, the precollege level. That is a big thing and it is a lot of people. You can spend a lot of money and do nothing more than keep that machine running--keep that 19th-century steel factory just going--without investing in changing the machine.
Where the large investment needs to come is in reconstruction of the enterprise, of which science and math is only a part. That is going to take a big investment somewhere along the line. It is going to be billions of dollars, and not millions or hundreds of millions. We really have not addressed that, which is a point that I made earlier--even if you only talk about retraining the teachers seriously.
How that is going to happen, I am not clear. My own guess is that we need a different social invention that has some other name than nsf or the Education Department, which can provide some capital that can be made available in a different way, only to address structural change, and not to run the same old machine. In the short run, however, the money-throwing is what gets us in trouble--a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.
EW: Is it the way the money is being thrown that you object to right now?
Mr. Rutherford: I don't see the coherence out there yet, and I don't know how much will come. Besides, we don't have much money yet. We have a lot of talk and not much money. What I worry about is the state block-grant notion. You can easily begin to talk $300 million, $400 million, $500 million being pumped out there. The money gets laundered and you don't know what happens to it. A lot of money is spent, but it is not doing anything that you can track.
I think we need to spend an awful lot more, but not in the ways we have been talking about.
Mr. Usiskin: Isn't the problem that no matter how you allocate the money, if you allocate it to 17,000 different school districts, you are going to have problems in not knowing what happens to it?
Mr. Aldridge: It seems to me, after watching what happened in Congress with the different science-math bills, that the problem really became one that we are in a period when the Administration is cutting back the federal aid to education. We saw groups that had a political desire to increase that aid, and they simply latched on to this issue and diluted it in such a way that the monies are not being directed toward the problem.
Half of the money in HR 1310, if it were properly spent, would make a serious dent in the problem. It would really help to solve the problem. As proposed now, it would just be dispersed like firing a shotgun blast at something.
Mr. McCurdy: We in the Congress have this great ability. We appropriate money, or we write a bill, and we wipe our hands. The problem is solved, and we go to the next one. That is not the answer. As Jim Rutherford said, there has to be a continuum here.
Vol. 02, Issue 39