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These Are The Good Old Days

Are the nation's schools really going to hell in a handbasket? That seems to be the conventional wisdom these days, and the argument comes from both liberals and conservatives. But as Peter Schrag counters in the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the "assumptions of crisis and failure" that have fueled the school reform debate don't hold up under close scrutiny. In short, things aren't as bad as they seem, and there never was a "golden age" of American public education "when schools maintained rigorous academic standards, when all children learned, when few dropped out and most graduated on time...." Yes, Schrag admits, there are problems in our schools, but "without a more realistic sense of what is going on--a better understanding of the myths--the country will never get beyond the horror stories and ideological set pieces that seem endlessly to dominate the education debate."

A High Price For Smaller Classes

It's one of the perennial questions in education: Does class size matter? Californians think so, and they were thrilled last year when Governor Pete Wilson pushed through an initiative to reduce the size of classes statewide in kindergarten through 3rd grade. "In slightly over a year," report Thomas Toch and Betsy Streisand in U.S. News & World Report (October 13), "the state has created at least 17,000 new classes, and over half of the state's 1.9 million eligible students have been placed in classes of no more than 20 students." But there is a catch. For one thing, reducing class size is expensive: The annual cost to sustain the reform is about $1.5 billion. Also, the state has had to hire thousands of new teachers, which, Toch and Streisand argue, "might be lowering the quality of teaching." Space, too, is a problem: "Smaller classes and more teachers require more classrooms than California schools can currently provide." A better method, the reporters assert, is to reduce classes selectively rather than across the board. "California's approach," they conclude, "may be an inefficient but reasonable compromise between what's substantively ideal and what's politically possible."

If It Ain't Broke

Special education has gotten a bad rap in recent years. "Policymakers routinely see learning disabilities as either fictional--cooked up by the schools in search of increased state subsidies--or as 'minor' disorders that warrant less concern as, say, blindness or deafness," writes Brent Staples in the New York Times Magazine (September 21). But Staples, an editorial writer for the newspaper, argues that "even with its problems, special education is spectacularly better than in the bad old days," that is, before Congress passed the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act in 1975. "Children who would once have been institutionalized or shut out of school," Staples writes, "are now educated under conditions that are enviable--even by affluent suburban standards." But a number of states, faced with skyrocketing costs, are making plans to limit special education spending, mostly by mainstreaming disabled students into regular classrooms. Staples is troubled by the trend. "The mainstreamers," he writes, "argue that special education was never intended as a permanent place for any except the most profoundly handicapped students. For most children, it was supposed to be an educational pit stop where they developed the skills they needed for full participation. This is true as far as it goes. But the central goal was always to educate children who had traditionally been viewed as ineducable."

Surprise Ending

What makes a good teacher? The New Yorker (September 22) put the question to novelist and biographer Jonathan Keates, author of Allegro Postillions and Stendhal. His reply: "The unplanned element is terribly important, just as it is in writing. I don't believe in the teacher who plans every single lesson, and I don't have any faith in the kind of book where you know exactly how it's going to go."

--David Hill

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