Where are the productive classrooms?

The promised achievement improvement has been just about zero, with test scores today still in the low 200s out of 500, just as they were then. Increasingly, I find myself thinking back to my own graded school days, when all 25-to-30 of us in the classroom made "proficient" every year, learning not only how to handle the 36 symbols for reading and counting (the Japanese Kanji system requires a couple thousand for basic literacy) but to master such not-even-taught-any-more subjects as grammar and penmanship. I speculate that there are four underlying causes for what economist Vedder labels the "productivity collapse in public education," and I include the class-size shrinkage for its downward effect on learning (see below) which he doesn't mention, more than for its upward effect on per-pupil costs, which he does. In no particular order, they are: social-promotion up, achievement-promotion down; classroom-disruptive student behavior up, teacher-authority down; social-issue instruction up, basic competencies down; and class-size reduction.

Social-promotion. When I was in, say, grade 7, every classmate there had similarly mastered the grade 6 content. Rarely, one or two who hadn't shown proficiency at an earlier grade had to repeat it. Thus, the proficiency rate was 100 percent, exactly what NCLB now seeks by 2014. To what extent social-promotion alone is the cause or symptom of the present 60 percent reading and math non-proficiency rate as revealed by the NAEP test scores, the available literature doesn't say.

Disruptive or disengaged "students." When I was in public grade school, teacher authority was unquestioned (it still is, in non-public schools) and therefore almost never challenged. Classroom time was almost never devoted to maintenance-of-order, almost always devoted to teaching and learning, and adverse peer-pressure was non-existent. Presently, a handful of States is adopting new statutes to restore that authority.

Social-issue instruction. Classroom time is a zero-sum equation: time spent on such matters is time not spent on basic competencies. You won't find evidence of social-issue instruction objectives in the NAEP sample test questions or the NECAP Grade-Level Expectations, but close observers of the public-ed scene say that such instruction takes place anyway, even though it doesn't show up in the written lesson plans. To what extent it causes student non-proficiency in reading and math, the available literature doesn't say.

Class size. Several private-school educators have explained to me that larger (traditional) class size enables more student learning, as classmates get more chances to observe each other recite and question. Mathematically, smaller classes equate to more teacher-attention per student, but, apparently, that isn't the major determinant of achievement and proficiency. Recently, a handful of States has enacted minimum class size rules, but none yet enforces them.

When I was in graded school, 65 percent was the subject-mastery passing grade. Anything less was a "flunk." Of the above four subjects, States are now becoming active on two. That's 50 percent.

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