January 16, 1997
Margaret Warner and a panel discuss a report which criticize America's public school system.
MARGARET WARNER: The report issued today by the newspaper Education Week showed that despite a 15-year effort to improve public schools, the states still have a very long way to go. States have made the most progress in designing standards to measure student performance, rating an average grade of "B." But their average grade for the quality of teaching was a "C." And their grades for maintaining a school climate that's conducive to learning averaged out to a "C-." The states also got mediocre grades, a "C" average, in how they allocated money and other resources to education. The report didn't give a letter grade in the all-important area of student achievement. But it said results from the only national tests of student performance were "a cause for genuine concern." In most states only a third or fewer students had attained proficiency in fourth grade reading or eighth grade math. Here to explain and discuss these results are three guests. Ronald Wolk is the publisher of "Education Week;" Gordon Ambach is executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state school superintendents; and Terry Branstad is the Republican governor of Iowa and chairman-elect of the Education Commission of the states. Welcome, gentlemen. Ron Wolk, starting with you, what's the most important thing, in your view, to come out of this study?
RONALD WOLK, Education Week: Well, I think the most important thing is that despite a lot of state policy activity, we still have not put into place in most of these states a coherent strategy that is focused on those things that really matter, that really can improve student achievement, and bring about some improvement in our schools. We were covering education when the National Commission report came out in 1983 and said our systems were threatened by a rising tide of mediocrity. After a year of looking at the data, I think I could say that the rising tide may not be rising anymore, but there's no indication that, that it has turned. And we think that a coherent strategy might help accomplish that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's get into the substance of this report and help us understand what's behind these letter grades. Of course, there's been a lot of attention focused on the states to--coming up with standards. And you did find I think 22 states had done very well in coming up with standards, but then if you looked across the chart, most of these states were still getting a "C" in the quality of teaching, a "C" in all the other categories. How do you explain this gap say between standards and quality teaching?
RONALD WOLK: Well, first of all, I have to make clear that we were assessing state policy. We weren't assessing schools. We weren't assessing teachers. Standards as a relatively--the kind of standards we're talking about now, what students should know and be able to do, assessments that will really measure whether they can do it, is relatively new. It's a strategy the governors have bought into in most states. It's the centerpiece of a reform system. But it hasn't yet really been put into place. The grade of "B" the states got is more for effort than anything else because the standards aren't--
MARGARET WARNER: In the standards area.
RONALD WOLK: In the standards area. They're defining the standards, but they haven't yet developed the assessment for them for the most part. Teachers haven't yet been trained to teach students. States haven't been associated with them, and so the relationship between standards and the other aspects that we looked at, at this point, is really not existent.
MARGARET WARNER: And then as we go into the discussion, just explain briefly, when you said quality of teaching, the average was a "C," what did you mean? What do you mean by that? What did you look at?
RONALD WOLK: We're looking at what policies the states have in place to assure as much as is possible that they will have good, qualified teachers in every classroom. Right now in this country 40 percent of the teachers are teaching out of field. They're math teachers who are teaching math without a math degree, science teachers without a science degree, 40 percent, and it varies state by state. So what policies the states have to assure that teachers will be well trained in their field, they'll be coming from education schools that are well accredited, there will be entry requirements and recertification requirements and those things. Those are what we looked at because those are the policies that if anything is going to produce good teaching, they will.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Gordon Ambach, from where you sit, do you see this gap between the standards and the quality of teaching, let's say?
GORDON AMBACH, Council of Chief State School Officers: Yes, there is a gap. "Ed Week" is a very tough grader. They've hit us hard with the overall assessment that's been made. They have recognized that there's been tremendous progress made in the past few years on setting standards, but it takes time to move the standards into actual practice. One of the biggest gaps that we have is the professional development of the teachers. This was pointed out by "Education Week," and I think this report shows us lots of places for improvement and the ways to improve.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor, do you agree that there's a long way to go in the quality of teaching, and, if so, why after all these years of attention to the subject?
GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD, Education Commission of the States: (Des Moines) Well, I think there's too much focus on process and not enough focus on results or achievement. In Iowa, we've taken a different approach. We're a local control state. We've led the nation in literacy in the 20th century, and we want to lead the nation in distance learning in the 21st century. And we've really focused on how we can improve student achievement by using the technology that's available and motivating teachers to set high and ambitious goals. But we believe that that should not be mandated from on high but should be developed at the local level, with the active involvement of parents and the community. And because of that strong community support involvement, Iowa continues to have very high achievement, even though we don't get the highest grades on process.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, I don't want to get into this. We wanted you on to talk about the national picture, but in the achievements--
GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD: Well, it's state by state. I think you need to recognize the traditions are different. Some states, like Kentucky, are trying to do this on a statewide basis. They have been a week state in education, are making some major modifications and changes. Iowa, on the other hand, we've been a strong state. We've been committed. We provide tremendous resources to education. We've been a leader in equity in providing funding more equally to the rich and poor districts. And so I think there's a danger of trying to go with this one-size-fits-all and everybody going with the latest fad.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, let me ask you this, Governor.
GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD: We try to focus on basics.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor, are you satisfied with the quality of teaching in Iowa? Do you think--you don't deserve a "C," as you got?
GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD: We--actually I think that we've done some very innovative things to improve teaching in Iowa. In most cases in Iowa we have teachers that are teaching in their field. I think more can be done to improve teaching. I want to attract more of the best and brightest to the teaching profession, but I would say in Iowa, we've got some excellent, dedicated quality teachers.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's turn to the resource question. And, again, Ron Wolk, sketch out for us what is the problem, what's behind the "C" grade overall that you gave in the resources area?
RONALD WOLK: Well, we didn't actually give a "C" grade overall.
MARGARET WARNER: I know. You gave three different ones.
RONALD WOLK: We gave three grades. And one had to do with are the states spending enough money, are they keeping up with inflation, are they making an effort that's compatible with their wealth? And secondly, we looked at equity, and we used a government index, which led to some great inflation and some anomalies. And we recognized that. And the GAO is coming out with a better, a more improved index. And then finally we looked at how money is spent and their indicators under that. Of all of those the thing I would point to most is equity because in this country--and this is another one of those bottom lines you asked for earlier--a child's education, the quality of a child's education--is still largely determined by the color of his skin, where she lives, or the relative affluence of her parents. And in the country which is the freest in the world and the richest in the world, that's really an intolerable situation.
MARGARET WARNER: Gov. Branstad, would you say--would you agree that's a problem nationally again, not in Iowa, and what will it take to correct it?
GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD: State after state is addressing that. I know, for instance, some of the states have had a major divergence. I can think of Michigan, for instance, Gov. Engler has made some dramatic changes to increase the equity and funding, change it more from being property taxes to more state dollars going into it. I think that's made a big difference. But you have to look at it state by state. In my state, we started very early back in the 1970's to equalize between the rich and the poor. And just last year we put $85 million more state dollars in to replace local property taxes, so it does vary from state to state. Some states have done a much better job of equalizing and having more equitable funding sources. I think moving away from local property taxes to more general funding from the states is a way to do that. We've done that in Iowa, and still maintained local control and local decision making.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think is the most important finding here about resources, Gordon Ambach?
GORDON AMBACH: Well, I think it's a two-part finding. One part is related to the teacher quality, and that is that there have not been sufficient resources put into the quality of teachers, either preparing them or continuing to keep them prepared. And the other aspect of the finding is on the equity, the distribution. As the governor has pointed out there are many states which have taken great strides in attempting to try to build up their resource and the equitability. But if you take the country as a whole, and I think that's what's important about this report, we find not enough progress in this area.
MARGARET WARNER: Ron Wolk, explain one other thing in the resources area. The report suggests that perhaps too much is being spent on special education. Can you explain that?
RONALD WOLK: That was certainly not intended. There was no intent to suggest that the children who are special needs children should not get the resources they need. The point we are trying to make is that of the increases in expenditure that are causing a lot of taxpayers in this country to say we're spending too much and scaring a lot of politicians away from talking about new sources of revenue, the money, the increases have gone to such things as keeping up with the echo of the baby boom, enrollment, with increasing salaries of teachers, we're an aging teaching force, and their salaries are automatically going up as they're in grade, and finally the very expensive business of educating about 12 percent of the kids who are in special education. That may be fine. It just should be recognized that those dollars that we are increasingly putting into education are not always finding their way dollar for dollar to the classroom, where teachers and ordinary students are struggling to learn.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor, what's your view of the resource situation in terms of the willingness of taxpayers to spend more?
GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD: In our state nearly 60 percent of the budget goes for education. And what we find is people are willing to invest in quality education, but they're also fiscally conservative. They want to see results. They want to see achievement for the dollars that they put in. I think that the federal government in its mandates in the area of special ed has driven up costs needlessly. I think that needs to be reviewed. I want to see every child have an opportunity to learn. All special ed children do have a right to an education, but to spend tens of thousands of dollars on kids that really are not going to be able to support themselves or be able to really learn a great deal at the expense of the general education of the rest of the students is not fair. And so that has to be addressed. A lot of people are afraid of it, of being, you know, accused of being insensitive or whatever. I was in Sioux City, Iowa, yesterday, and I heard from a Teacher of the Year, Nancy Mounts, who had been Teacher of the Year, and the superintendent there about how their school is being squeezed because of the federal mandates in the area of special ed and how there needs to be more flexibility and latitude given to local school districts in that area.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that assessment?
GORDON AMBACH: The funding of special education is a very particular issue all away across the country. You have to remember that 25 years ago there would be a million less children in school than there are now because of the special education laws. There are adjustments that need to be made. I think the special education teachers and administrators know that, but I think that what's very critical on our funding issues overall is not to single out the special education program but to think about what we have to have overall. There are huge construction needs, $120 billion the GAO says. There are very, very strong professional development needs. It's not just an issue of looking at one part of the population but right across-the-board against the overall finding of this report with respect to where our achievement is related to where we want to be in the 21st century.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Before we start--let me get to student achievement, if I could, because you all found that there's no state, it doesn't seem, that has--almost every state only 35 percent of the kids, at the most, are what you call proficient say in reading in fourth grade or math in eighth grade. I mean, did you find a sense of alarm in the states about this?
RONALD WOLK: Well, I think you have to start worrying about a nation in which fewer than half of its students can read proficiently, and fewer than that can do math proficiently. These kids are going into a high-tech information society. If we expect them to be good citizens and vote and understand the issues, they're going to have to be able to understand and learn. If we expect the to succeed as workers, they're going to have to adapt to changing circumstances. And if we can't get a higher percentage of our students achieving, I suspect that this nation is in for real trouble. Either our economic and political systems will continue to be jeopardized, or other forms of education will emerge to replace the traditional public school.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Governor, very briefly, your state and all the others don't do better than this 1/3 proficiency. Is that good enough, or does a lot more have to be done?
GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD: Well, I would just say the last tests we scored right up there with, with Korea and with Taiwan, some of the highest achievers. But we're not satisfied. In fact, I'm putting together a task force on educational excellence for the 21st century. We want to use the technology that's available to motivate kids to achieve at a higher level. And I think governor after governor around the country is trying to improve education, but you have to do it in tune with the traditions of your state. I'm a strong believer in local control and parental involvement. If you get the parents and the community involved, you're going to see improvement in education. That's what we've seen in Iowa, where we have involved and committed parents and community, we see the schools doing quite, and I think that's a lot of it, is to get people involved, that they can make a difference at the local level.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Governor. We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.