July 8, 2004
Prof: More spending, smaller classes not panacea for better schools
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Pumping more money into public schools, including money needed to shrink class size, is not the way to improve American students' learning, says a Purdue University education expert.
"While school spending has steadily increased over recent decades, students' test scores have shown little change in the same direction," says Martin Patchen, professor emeritus of sociology. "While more spending may help, especially when targeted to improve the quality of teaching, a school's level of spending is not a major determinant of its success."
Spending is just one of the many issues Patchen addresses in his new book "Making Our Schools More Effective: What Matters and What Works." The book (hardcover $69.95 and soft-cover $49.95) was published in June by Charles C. Thomas Ltd. of Springfield, Ill. The book also focuses on issues related to teaching, school organization and programs, evaluating students, charter schools, vouchers, bilingual education, standardized testing, and computers in the classroom.
"Parents and educators are faced with an often bewildering variety of prescriptions for school improvement," Patchen says. "This book summarizes decades of evidence concerning what is most important and what works best for student learning.
"Among the most important contributors to high student achievement is involving students actively in challenging activities in which they can experience success. We also need to encourage teachers to collaborate, rather than work in isolation, and keep schools from getting too big."
Much of the spending on education has been directed to reducing class size, which means increasing the number of teachers on the payroll and providing additional space. Patchen suggests that this emphasis be re-evaluated because class size has only a modest and inconsistent effect on student achievement. Programs to reduce class size also may lead to hiring some poorly qualified teachers and to a shortage of space for labs and libraries.
"Combined with the high costs of programs to reduce class size, it is wise to be cautious in pushing sweeping programs of this type," Patchen says.
However, poor and minority student groups do seem to benefit more consistently, so efforts to reduce class size might be best focused on these groups, he says.
In 1951-52, $1,388 was spent per student nationwide. That number, when adjusted for inflation, increased 474 percent to $6,584 in 1999-2000, Patchen says. Some of the increase can be attributed to costs for special student groups, such as those in special education and bilingual education programs, and for supplementary services, such as food services and transportation.
"Still, even with these expenses taken into account, the increase in spending for the average student is substantial. It is striking that our nation's rate of spending is not balanced by a similar improvement in students' academic performance," he says.
Patchen also is concerned about some negative effects of mandatory state achievement tests.
"Pressure to raise students' scores on mandatory state tests have often led schools to reduce time on subjects and topics not tested, focus on isolated facts and simple skills, and push teachers to abandon teaching methods that have been most successful," he says.
Patchen says testing can be done in ways that help upgrade, rather than degrade, learning. For example, tests may assess problem-solving skills rather than knowledge of isolated facts, and may be tied to improved curriculum standards.
Patchen's other observations of school programs include:
The achievement of students who use computers in class is not significantly different from the achievement of those taught only by traditional methods.
For students whose primary language is not English, bilingual programs that last for many years are not as effective as programs that provide some home-language instruction at the start of school, and then quickly move to all-English instruction.
In general, charter schools, which are independent public schools, do not provide better education than regular public schools; they vary widely in their effectiveness.
Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Martin Patchen, (765) 497-1259, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; firstname.lastname@example.org
Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in a review copy of "Making Our Schools More Effective: What Matters and What Works" can contact Kathy Hastings at Charles C. Thomas Ltd. Publishing at (217) 789-8980, email@example.com.
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A publication-quality photograph is available at http:// http://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/+2004/patchen-schools.jpg