A wrong turn on education
Arizona Republic
March 15, 2008


It is not an easy thing for judges to resist finagling education. But must they be so consistently bad at it?

A federal District Court in Missouri decided, in 1984, that the Kansas City schools failed to desegregate sufficiently - it had too few White students for the judge's liking - so they chose to throw a whole lot of tax money at the problem. More money per student, in fact, than any U.S. court order ever had demanded, about $1.3 billion over the first 10 years.

The result was a great many magnificent school buildings, like the $23 million Paseo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. The order also produced high schools with Olympic-quality athletic facilities, a 30 percent hike in teacher salaries, smaller classes and other costly improvements. But, in the end, not a great deal of desegregation. Nor, for that matter, a whole lot of academic improvement among the students already in the Kansas City system.
There are countless other examples of judges who have looked at the misery of public education in certain sectors and found themselves declaring, "With my brains and other people's money, I can fix this."

We have a long-running guessing game in Arizona over the cost of teaching English-language learners. Although no one has ever calculated with any precision what the cost should be, federal judges in Tucson have developed precise conclusions about how low it shouldn't be . . . whatever the state Legislature thinks it should cost. And the debate goes on.

Late in February, a panel of three California appeals-court judges decided, unanimously, that California parents who lack state-approved teacher certification - the badge of competence, according to that state's judiciary - cannot teach their own children at home.

Pending successful appeal, tens of thousands of home-schooled California kids may be forced to enroll at public or private schools, at least until their parents spend untold hours and thousands of dollars on the coursework required to become state-certified teachers.

Now, home-schooling is not for everyone. Rough estimates of the number of students home-schooled in Arizona are in the 25,000 range. In California, estimates are at perhaps five times that number . . . a lot of kids, certainly, but statistically insignificant compared with the millions in traditional school environments. But despite what California judges may think about the practice being a rag-tag excuse for kids to play permanent hooky, the home-schooling network is highly organized and provides a vast array of resources to parents who teach their kids at home.

The practice does tend to lack those attributes that education officialdom deems important, however. And chief among those - especially now in California - is the state-certified blessing known as "credentialing," or "certification."

The debate over the educational value of a teaching certificate is decades long. It is rife with head-banging arguments over ideology, pedagogy and, yes, politics.

Is it truly a value-added improvement to have a state-certified teacher? Teacher unions and school boards emphatically say yes. So, too, do the colleges of education, through which the vast majority of certified teachers pass before entering the classroom. And so too - now - do California judges.

Home-schooling, according to those judges, is a "ruse" that allows students to "stay home and be taught by a non-credentialed parent." The horror.

But despite the imprimatur that officialdom insists on placing upon the credentialing system, there is very little legitimate evidence that state-certified credentials improve a student's body of knowledge, especially older students. And there is some solid evidence that non-credentialed teachers with expertise in their subject matter do a lot better by those students.

In 2000, Kirk Johnson of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis found that, especially in the later elementary years and through high school, a teacher skilled in specific subject matter proved better at furthering student achievement than a teacher who accumulated degrees in education.

Using results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, Johnson compared the results of students taught by teachers with advanced-education degrees and those who did not.

He found that eighth-grade students of teachers with advanced-ed degrees did worse on reading assessment tests than did students whose teachers held advanced degrees in English. The same held true for eighth-graders in math - students whose teachers held advanced math and science degrees did better.

In the lower grades, the results were more mixed . . . all of which speaks to common sense. The more complex the subject matter, the more teacher knowledge of subject matter counts.

Certainly, not all home-school parents have advanced degrees in the subjects they teach their children.

But waving a state-certified teacher credential as the key to a good education is hardly the magic wand that judges believe it to be.

Reach MacEachern at doug.maceachern@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8883