Making schools smarter

AUSTIN--A truism of education debates is that somebody, somewhere, has already figured out how to solve whatever the problem is.

In Los Angeles, there's a Jaime Escalante, about whom the film Stand and Deliver was made, successfully teaching physics to kids in the barrios. In Philadelphia, there's a terrific program for high-risk kids in danger of dropping out that keeps them in high school and even gets them into college. In Salt Lake City, there's a choice program within the public school system. In North Carolina, there's a fine program for gifted and talented kids, who are sometimes neglected in favor of the troublemakers. And so on.

Trouble is, we've never figured out how to replicate these special programs across the board. Until we can clone great teachers, the best we can do is clone good programs.

But there's always a "but." The special programs that have high success rates even with troubled kids always cost more money. And they tend to attract dedicated teachers. And the students benefit just from knowing they're part of a special program.

An old sociology experiment still cited today is the one in which factory workers on a boring assembly line were given much brighter lights to work under, on the theory that it would make them more productive. And it did. But then the lights were turned even dimmer than they had been originally, and lo, productivity went up again.

Turns out the factory workers did better just because they knew someone was paying attention to them. This could be why kids do better in experimental or special programs, the merit of the programs being a separate question.

The Texas House has passed an education bill that will allow districts that opt for home rule to bypass most state education regulations. On the one hand, we can hope that much good will come from this. On the other hand, we can fear that much bad will come from this.

And it was on the horns of that dilemma that the House got itself stuck. Minority legislators are afraid that home rule will lead right back to segregated schools--a well-founded fear, given the level of segregation that already exists in many East Texas districts. One can foresee numerous other horrors ahead; in many districts, parents whose kids did not pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests have demanded that they be scrapped, rather than that the kids be taught more.

The House's three-day marathon education session did provide for some improvements. For example, home-rule districts will still be required to limit class size, at least in the early grades, to 22 pupils. Class size is the one constant in education debates; everyone agrees that the smaller the class size, the better kids learn. Many educators are convinced that smaller schools work better than the big imitation-factory schools we keep building, but that's a separate question.

Twenty-two students to one teacher is not a great ratio, but it beats 40 kids in a class.

House Education Chair Paul Sadler of Henderson deserves credit for getting through a decent pay raise for teachers. Starting teachers' pay will be raised to $20,000 from $17,000, and for the first time ever, Texas teachers with 20 years' experience will actually be making almost as much as the national average for experienced teachers. Hooray! Almost up to average.

Our politicians took the usual heroic stands we expect of them--they're in favor of prayer and abstinence and against condom distribution. Boy, are those tough positions. Our courageous lion-hearts also decided to make no-pass, no-play a three-week suspension rather than a six-week suspension.

As a congenital optimist, I look forward to a great flowering of educational innovation around the Great State, now that local districts can free themselves of the onerous paperwork laid upon them by the crazed school bureaucracy in Austin. Or so the theory goes.

On the other hand, being Texans, we have to be realistic on account of certain basic facts that are known to us all. For example, many Texans still believe public schools exist in order to support football. And we have already seen, in several districts, fundamentalists taking over school boards. This will lead to the teaching of creationism and Lord knows what all else. There are probably some snake-handlers still out there in the Piney Woods. Flat-earthers could make a comeback. Parents are advised to be alert at all times.

As the grown-ups sit around biting and scratching each other over whether progressive education or back-to-basics is better, I was reminded of the real problem by a junior high student. "School," he said, "is just so boring."

And that's the shame of the world, isn't it? With any luck at all, somewhere in Texas, in just one spot, home rule will allow teachers and parents and administrators to make the process of learning as fun and fascinating as it should be.

Other notes from the Lege:
Best Fistfight of the Session So Far: Rep. Ron Wilson of Houston vs. Rep. Harvey Hilderbran of Kerrville in a Members' Lounge duke-out that ranks as one of the Lege's best matches. Wilson, the victor, was embarrassed because he had recently read out his son for fighting in school.

Why We Have Two Houses: The House of Reps prohibited the Texas Commission on the Arts from promoting or funding "sexually explicit art." "In looking at the language, it was determined after careful study that we would have to drape the Goddess of Liberty," reported Sen. John Montford to the conference committee. So now the law forbids the commission from supporting "obscene art," and the spectacularly ugly statue on top of our state Capitol remains undraped.

Dumbest Fight of the Session So Far: Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, who is a testy fellow, got an ant in his pants about the vehicle emissions testing program, which was supposed to get all the smoky, oil-belching clunkers off the roads and help clean up our air. An outfit called Tejas Testing Technology had won the contract for the inspection program, which it already has in California and elsewhere. But Whitmire took a fit over it--all the clunker-owners were complaining--and passed a bill to kill the inspection program. Gov. George W. Bush signed it. Now Tejas Testing is suing the state for $150 million for breaking the contract. For $150 million, we could have paid for a lot of new mufflers. Now we're out the money and still have dirty air.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins