Selected Skirmishes: The Education Precedent

School reform flunks its history test.


It's time to paraphrase George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeatedly pay for failed education reforms. Today, every elected official in the country–from the president to mosquito-abatement district representatives–is stumping for strict "national standards" and billions to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes.

There's a growing consensus that now is the time to make the down payment on such unprecedented measures. The result, we're told, will be better schools and smarter kids who will do their parents proud (and who will make enough money to support them in their old age).

One question: What happened last time? In his 1990 State of the Union address, self-described "Education President" George Bush pledged that "national standards" would push our students into the next century with maximum academic momentum.

What kind of results spewed from this grand fountain of enlightened public policy? "Almost 10 years ago, President George Bush and the state governors set goals aimed at preparing all the nation's children to improve their achievement in core subjects and outpace the world in at least math and science by 2000," reported Education Week recently. "With one year remaining, the prospects of reaching those goals…appear practically nil."

Of course this time will be entirely different, right? But let's think for just a moment about hiring 100,000 additional public school teachers, the proudest pedagogical boast of last year's federal budgeteers. In 1994-95, the latest year for which the Census Bureau Web site posts such numbers, there were 3,763,312 elementary and secondary public school instructors on the payroll, serving some 44,111,482 students. That breaks down to a nationwide student/teacher ratio of 11.7. Dumping 100,000 new instructors into the mix brings the ratio all the way down to 11.4.

It seems safe to assume that not all instructors on payroll end up in the classroom, so the true student/teacher ratio is, in all reality, much higher. Fair enough. The 11.7 figure sounds low to me, too (let's just skip the potentially embarrassing question as to where those non-classroom instructors are hiding).

Let's figure that only half of all paid teachers make it to class. That means adding 100,000 new teachers lowers the average class from 23.4 to 22.8. And that's with the heroic assumption that we get 100 percent of the new teachers actually into the classroom.

What learning improvements will follow from diminishing the average class size by three-fifths of a student? The scientific evaluation of educational methods has looked extensively at pupil/teacher ratios, and has arrived at an answer: none. Reductions from very large class sizes are correlated with improved learning, but the gains diminish around 35-40 per class, and essentially disappear in the 20-30 range.

Moreover, the 100,000 new instructors–having less experience and less motivation (else they would already have been teaching)–are likely to be inferior to those already in the classroom. This means that the net effect is to divert hundreds of thousands of students into classes taught by worse teachers. Even ignoring the multi-billion dollar expense, the scheme may well result in declining educational opportunity for public school children in America.

But then, perhaps it's naive to assume that the new teachers are about education. Like the guys who run three-card monte games on the street, politicians know that misdirection is the key to a successful scam. If you look only where they tell you to, you miss all the real action.

The 100,000-teachers program successfully funnels lots of money–and recruits–to powerful teachers unions while setting off those sensors taped to the wrists of America's soccer moms, the suburban swing vote that matters most to Big Thinkers casting about for electoral votes. That U.S. per-pupil spending–$6,035 in 1995 –exceeds that of all other developed nations while results lag far behind seems not to matter.

But why sacrifice the children? I suggest a therapeutic alternative to more and less-qualified public school teachers: Give generously to the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which supports vouchers. (One American Square, Suite 2440, Indianapolis, IN 46282).

Or lay a little green on a good strapped-for-cash private learning institution saving kids in tough neighborhoods from hopelessness, poverty–and public schools. A prime candidate is Providence, Rhode Island's Community Preparatory. My friend and fellow American Enterprise Institute economist, Bob Hahn, helped Dan Corley start this school in 1983, and today it educates 120 low-income kids.

If you check out the school's Web site (, prepare for goose bumps. And a glimpse at what real education reform might look like.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett ( is an economist at the University of California at Davis and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.