It's really happening

Just because of earlier false starts, don't think education isn't changing

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

Huge changes are on the way for American education. Don't let anybody kid you into thinking otherwise. Admittedly, some of us have been harping on this subject for 10 years and more, and we may seem occasionally like the little boy crying "Wolf!" Around 90 percent of all American children still attend government schools-a figure not much smaller than a generation ago. So it's legitimate for skeptics to challenge us and say: Where's the proof? When are all these changes coming?

Two big changes are coming soon-or are already on the way. Vouchers and the charter-school concept are making big inroads, challenging traditional approaches to the funding and control of schools. And educational technology is finally maturing, with educators learning that new efficiencies are indeed possible as they sort out what can and what can't be done over wires and with computers.

On the voucher and charter-school front, profound developments have been in the news over the last couple of weeks. Out west, Willie Breazell, the head of the 900-member NAACP unit in Colorado Springs, was forced to resign simply because he wrote a column in the Gazette-Telegraph endorsing the voucher concept. The existing system, he said, tends to leave "the poorest kids who need the most help ... trapped in our very worst schools." Most local NAACP members wanted Mr. Breazell to stay on as director, even after his article, but the national organization said no. "I was kind of lynched," Mr. Breazell told The Wall Street Journal. "If you join the NAACP, you sacrifice some of your liberties, and if you don't have the group-think mentality, you won't last."

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But don't such strong-arm tactics often signal the beginning of the end for the policies of the strong-armers? Three members of the executive committee of the Colorado Springs NAACP resigned in solidarity with Mr. Breazell-but that's not all. While all this was going on out west, Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also unexpectedly came out for vouchers at an NAACP dinner in Tallahassee, Fla. "The public-school system has had a monopoly that's gotten a little stodgy," he said, "and it needs to be shaken up." When Andy Young comes out for a basically conservative idea, liberal defenders of the status quo in education had better watch out!

In Grand Rapids, Mich., meanwhile, a good bit of attention has been focused recently on a new series of charter schools being established by a group called National Heritage Academies. Typically, charter schools over the last few years have been allowed to open in a number of states as alternatives to traditional public schools-and yet with sufficient public funding to make them tuition-free. In Michigan, those funds amount to over $6,000 annually per student, a figure significantly higher than is spent by typical private Christian schools. National Heritage Academies has parleyed that leverage over the last four years into the establishment of 22 schools with 8,600 students. In exchange for the public funds, the schools give up the privilege of calling themselves Christian, but hand-picked boards of directors can go a long way in establishing hiring policies, behavior codes, and curricula that make the schools highly attractive to many Christian parents. So about a fifth of NHA's enrollment now comes from Christian school backgrounds-but the other 80 percent are at the expense of traditional public schools. It's another example of the radical changes that are reshaping the landscape of American education.

Yet, while all that is happening on the funding and control side of education, another revolution may finally be picking up speed within the classrooms themselves. That revolution has to do with the simple issue of productivity. My father used to remind me how lopsided the record of educators is on that issue compared to other vocations and professions. A century ago, for example, it took 30-40 hours of a farmer's time to produce 100 bushels of grain. Now it takes just two hours. But a century ago, a single schoolteacher often taught all subjects to 25-30 students at eight or nine grade levels, all in a single room, and with significant success. Her graduates typically finished as competent readers and proficient in basic math. Who can claim even that we match that record today, much less surpass it?

It is altogether possible, of course-maybe even likely-to misuse technology. Neither films, nor television, nor video recorders, nor computers, nor the Internet have lived up to the early ballyhoo they all got from educators. For that matter, maybe books, magazines, and newspapers have fallen short of their original promise! Yet how can we claim, with all these tools at our disposal, that it shouldn't be demonstrably easier and cheaper to pass on certain kinds of knowledge, skills, and wisdom than it used to be? Educators used to call the library "the heart of the campus"-so it's appropriate now that libraries should be taking the lead in technological advancement. Information retrieval and basic research are far simpler, much faster, and less costly than they were a generation ago. Now it's time for the rest of education to match the librarians' accomplishments.

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