Jul 1, 2002
It’s no secret what is required for a good education: first of all, good teachers; second of all, enough teachers, so each student gets the attention he or she needs; third, enough up-to-date books and other supplies, so science projects may be pursued, and the student exposed to culture. That’s what the best schools provide, and it is what is absent from the worst schools.
The biggest single item in short supply in the schools is the teacher. For the last 40 years there has been a chronic shortage of teachers trained in the field they are teaching. Many teachers are today teaching a subject in which they had no formal preparation whatsoever. Almost 20% of math teachers and 15% of English language teachers did not have even a college minor in the field they are now teaching. One-third of all American high schools offer no physics class because they have no one able to teach physics.
In a significant number of cases, teachers aren’t certified at all. Today, according to a study done by the National Center for Education Statistics, 12% of teachers with less than 4 years of teaching experience have no certificate, or only a so-called “emergency” certificate. These are overall figures for the country as a whole: they are much worse in the school districts or schools which serve the poorest children. Coming into September of the 1997-98 school year, the Los Angeles Unified School District hired 2966 teachers to fill vacancies. Roughly 60% of these new teachers had only “emergency certificates,” meaning they didn’t even meet standards to be certified.
Even when teachers are certified and have preparation in the fields they teach, they are burdened down with classes so large, they can’t begin to give attention to the children they are teaching. Starting in 1985, the state of Tennessee decided to study the effect of class size on student achievement. This is so obvious it shouldn’t require a study, yet state legislatures continue to debate the point. The Tennessee study involved class size in the early elementary years, kindergarten through grade three. Each participating school divided into three types of classes: “small” (from 13 to 17 students) or “regular” (22 to 26 students) or “regular with a full-time teacher aide.” At every grade level students in the smaller classes did significantly better on standardized tests than those in the larger classes, whether or not the larger class had an aide. Small classes in inner city schools made the biggest jump in achievement. Not only did students do better during the years they were in the smaller classes, but they also did better during the rest of their school years up through graduation.
The bourgeoisie and better off layers of the petty-bourgeoisie know that smaller classes and better prepared teachers make a difference. The classes in their schools, whether public or private, have many fewer students than the “normal” class in working class areas. Their teachers have much more academic preparation, including in the field they are teaching. And the teachers have access to modern equipment and all the textbooks they need.
What would it take for every school to have the same thing? In a word, money.
But proposals like those for vouchers or charter schools simply drain money out of the system – but they don’t put children in better schools.
In the first place, a voucher is worth only what the original public school of a student would pay. In Ohio, for example, vouchers are worth only $1,618 a year, while the average cost per student is $5,251 in the public schools. Private schools cost much more.
And in the schools whose tuition is low enough so the vouchers can pay it, the education is generally inferior to that in the ordinary public schools. Many of the schools where vouchers are used are run by religious orders, which at the very least interfere with a real scientific education. Others have been set up as charter schools by someone to make a profit. In neither case are the interests of students from ordinary families served.
We live in a society today wherein exist not only the technical means but also sufficient wealth so that every child could be truly educated: that is, not only gaining a basic foundation in math, reading, writing and a scientific approach, but absorbing the collective knowledge that humanity has developed up until now. The knowledge that humanity in its different cultures has collectively gathered is there, available to be passed down to all the members of society.
What stands in the way of this is a reactionary system which not only refuses to provide the money needed, but also proposes to take us backwards all the way to the time before the first American revolution, when schools were run by churches and religious orders. Those people who so regularly call on the “founding fathers” to buttress their reactionary arguments, in fact would set Jefferson and the others to spinning in their graves – as the saying goes.