January 8, 2013

Editorial: Not asking the right questions


---- — What to do about mediocre performance by students in New York’s schools — and in those across the United States, for that matter — has been brainstormed and debated for decades, and the answers remain frustratingly elusive.

It seems that investigators have not yet found the right questions to ask.

Local educators are not impressed with the findings of Gov. Cuomo’s New York Education Reform Commission’s report, and apparently with good reason. We applaud the governor for undertaking the initiative and hope he continues to make this inquiry a top priority.

Among the commission’s recommendations are a longer school day and school year, more emphasis on effective prekindergarten, better social and health services and more technology in the classroom.

You could make a good argument for the promise any of these ingredients would achieve.

But each would cost money, and, of course, money these days is an elusive commodity itself. Critics argue that powerful teacher unions resist spending more time in the classroom without proportionate compensation. Who could reasonably ask them to? Is there any occupation in which workers would be asked to spend dramatically more time on the job without a pay increase?

But money does not appear to be the answer to this state’s inability to demonstrate marked improvement in student performance. Last July, a study by 24/7 Wall St. found per-pupil spending in the United States ranged from a low of around $10,000 by Utah and a high of more than $16,000 in New York. Yet Utah’s graduation rate was higher than New York’s.

A Harvard study last year found U.S. students right in the middle in performance, in a range from a high of Latvia, Chile and Brazil to a low of Sweden, of all places. Latvian students are improving three times as fast as Americans.

And, of course, many educators and others have a low opinion of standardized tests as a measure of student worth and achievement. Since the state instituted these tests, teachers have railed against the necessary sacrifice of their own creativity in classrooms.

In fairness to the teachers, the United States is still the world leader in much of what is regarded as significant. Measured gains may not be apparent, but something good is going on in America’s schools. American colleges and universities are still the gold standard for international students.

Nevertheless, world superiority in the future relies on first-class education now. As the Harvard study pointed out, “A country ignores the quality of its schools at its economic peril.”

Clearly, the United States, including New York, wants to do whatever it can — short of spending wads of taxpayer money — to improve its schools. Fortunately, statistics show money spent doesn’t convert into talent and performance.

What New York needs is an entirely fresh reflection on what makes a student want to succeed and be able to succeed. The old ideas don’t seem to be providing the answers.