Commentary: Indiana’s real learning problem

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS – As I grow older, I become more and more convinced that zealots cause most of the trouble in the world.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

The unreasoning and uncompromising nature of their fervor gives them influence that is completely disproportionate to their numbers. Because their positions are grounded in faith – religious or ideological – their beliefs are impervious to facts. Because they see altering their view in the face of new evidence not as a learning experience but as a betrayal of principle, they inevitably prefer continuing the fight to finding a just peace or a workable solution to a problem.

In few areas have we seen this more clearly than in Indiana’s education wars.

Indiana now has the most extensive – and, in some ways, most expensive – school voucher program in America. We Hoosiers will spend $146 million on school vouchers to send 3 percent of the state’s students to private or religious schools. More than half of those students never have attended a public school.

A new study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame reveals that taxpayers are getting very little, if anything, in return for that investment.

The Notre Dame researchers found that voucher students in grades three through eight performed at basically the same level as public-school students in language skills but experienced considerable drop-offs in math during the first two years. They closed much, but not all, of the gap in the next two years.

The Notre Dame results largely reaffirmed other independent studies, most of which show that voucher students don’t perform any better than traditional public-school students, except in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math – where they seem to lose ground.

(This shouldn’t be surprising. If a student uses a voucher to attend a school that, for example, is hostile to evolution on religious grounds, we shouldn’t be shocked that the science curriculum isn’t first-rate.)

Self-proclaimed education reformers did the best they could to slap not just lipstick but eyeliner and blush on this pig. They argued the study “vindicated” their advocacy because it “proved” voucher students can make up, over the long term, most of the ground they’ve lost.

As rallying cries go, saying “we’re spending more money for slightly worse results” isn’t that inspiring.

Not that these results or any similar ones will dampen the self-proclaimed reformers’ ardor for their definition of choice as a magic solution to education challenges. One of the defining characteristics of zealots is the determination to dismiss all evidence that contradicts their preconceived notion as something akin to heresy.

The tragedy of this is that researchers now have begun to uncover ways that we could improve student performance and make school a much more pleasant, satisfying and enriching experience for young people. We now know so much more about the ways the human brain absorbs and processes information – about the ways in which people learn – than we did even a generation ago.

The irony is that this research does support establishing some sort of school choice system – just not the sort of school choice framework the voucher advocates want.

Instead of handing over vouchers so parents can spend taxpayer money to send junior to a church school or to a school where junior can make the basketball team, we should set up public schools that meet the needs of students who have specific learning styles.

Rather than determining the school’s student population by its geographic location, we would do it by figuring what the students need. One school would cater to those young people who respond best to visual stimuli. Another would serve those who need frequent motion breaks and learn most easily when they’re standing, rather than sitting. Still another would be for those students who process information most efficiently by doing.

The focus here would be on how each individual student learns – not on what the parents want or what the teachers believe they deserve or how the increasingly large corporate education culture can profit.

There’s nothing stopping us from changing our schools to take advantage of this new research – nothing but zealots’ determination to keep propping up an expensive system that isn’t working and to continue an increasingly non-productive fight.

The problem here isn’t that our children can’t learn.

It’s that the zealots can’t.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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