Monday, December 01, 2014

George Will and “Failing” schools

Here’s another letter to the editor that probably wasn’t published.  This was in response to George Will’s “Tall Order for a Few Federal Dollars”.  It was published in February 2001.  The only easily available copy I could find was from the Southeastern Missourian, 2001-02-03 at,4795189

The text of my letter, dated 2001-02-03 follows.

I am amazed how ideology leads a deep thinker like George Will to be as shallow as he is in “Tall Order for a Few Federal Dollars”.

At the beginning of his article, he talks about “failing schools” and how transfers to other public schools or vouchers to private schools would allow students to leave these failing schools.  He goes on to list what factors lead to students’ success but he says that schools can only influence one of those factors and that additional resources won’t change any of these factors.

He also compares the “success” of private schools to the “failure” of public schools but with a superficial assumption that the student populations are identical.

He gives a measure of the skills of public school teachers without examining whether his measure is appropriate to what the teachers are doing.  He also links that measure to a comparison of “cognition” of American students with that of students in other developed countries.

Furthermore, he uses that measure to show that class size won’t make any difference.

From his article and from a couple hours of newspaper and Web research, I see a different picture.

First, if students are allowed to leave “failing schools”, which students will leave?  The “failing” students who are most in need of “better” teaching, or the successful students who have the advantage of the five factors of
- number of parents in home
- days absent from school
- hours spent watching television
- quantity and quality of reading matter in home
- amount of homework

If the successful students leave, won’t the failing schools fail even more?  If the failing students leave, won’t they be taking their problems to other schools and lead those schools to “fail”?

Will ignores that additional resources can change four of the five factors, including the only one he says that the schools can control - amount of homework.  If classes are smaller, then teachers can give and check more homework.  Schools can influence absenteeism with truant officers and counselors, neither of which work for free.  Schools can help reduce hours spent watching television by providing more after school activities; activities like sports, music, and theatre cost money in material and staff time.  Schools can provide a quantity of quality reading matter, but books and librarians cost money.  The only factor additional resources can’t change is the number of parents.

Will writes that most failing schools serve inner-city children but inner-city Catholic schools “do better with fewer resources”.  Are the public schools and the Catholic schools serving students with the same lack of success factors?  Because some parents choose to send their children to Catholic schools, might more of the success factors be present in those families?  Will doesn’t raise this question.  Furthermore, the Catholic schools can select their students; the public schools have to take all students.

Will states that “38 percent of American teachers had college majors in academic subjects” and implies that majoring in education makes a teacher inadequately trained.  However, most schools don’t get deeply into “academic subjects” until junior high.  Many elementary teachers teach a wide range of subjects, especially in the lower grades.   In 1997 there were about 1.2 million secondary public and private teachers and about 1.85 million elementary teachers.  That means about 39% of the teachers were junior and high school teachers.  That is rather close to the percent of teachers who had a major in an academic subject.

Will relates his perception that too few teachers had academic majors to how “American students’ cognition [compares] with students around the developed world”.  Again, is he comparing similar groups of students?  The Department of Education warns in Digest of Education Statistics 1999, Chapter 6 - International Comparisons of Education (  “ data users should be cautioned about the many problems of definition and reporting involved in the collection of data about the educational systems in the world.”  Could it be that different kinds of students are being measured in different countries?  For example, are the students being measured in some countries only those on an academic track as opposed to all students in the U.S.?  If all students are being measured in those other countries, do they have the same mix of socio-economic classes as the U.S. does?  More specifically, is there a large portion of students who lack some of the five significant success factors?

Finally, Will claims small class size “simply increases the attention each pupil gets from an inadequately trained teacher.”  The Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program in Wisconsin has shown that smaller class sizes give better results (Duluth News-Tribune, Jan. 18, 2001).  As one teacher put it, with larger classes “it's a lot of tying shoes”.

Follow up email to the Washington Post:

In today's Star Tribune I found a more factual rebuttal than mine to George Will's Feb. 1st column on education.  It is about the ACE (A Commitment to Excellence) program in Minneapolis.  [The link I had no longer works.  The article was from 2001-02-04.]  In short, it is about a program that targets at-risk black males to give them tutoring and counseling to help them succeed.  The $500,000 program is sponsored by the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis Public Schools, and Hennepin County Children and Family Services.

You can find a link to the start of the article at