Birth of a Talking Point

by Martin Harris

If there’s historical truth behind the old English “third time’s the charm” adage, it may be that we’ve just witnessed the birth of a new Talking Point in the politics of public education. Your Humble Scribe is somewhat slow on the up-take, and let the first two instances slide without recognition, but this time it’s a quote in a nearly-half-page news piece in The Wall Street Journal, (p. R3, 18 June edition) so it may well be that, in the mutation-evolution (or is it “intelligent design” ?) of casual comment to full-fledged multiple-repetition phrase, a new bumper-sticker-length TP has just been born. If you’re old enough to remember “sale extended due to unexpected customer demand”, a phrase which became standard in radio advertising after earlier price cuts and come-on-in enticements hadn’t succeeded in clearing the retailers’ shelves, you’ll recognize the genetic ancestry of “…people want class sizes low…” from suburban Scottsdale Unified (outside Phoenix AZ) School District Superintendent David Peterson, to explain how his schools are staying within budget by going solar, not by –ugh—“…cutting staff…”, but by “…cutting utilities…” Translation: we admit that our 40-year-long class-size reduction experiment which, we educators promised, would raise student achievement test scores, has failed to do so, so we’re switching our argument to people (“customer”) demand.

SUSD is one of the nation’s 15,000 largest school districts, and so some of its stats are Federally published for all –even non-educators, which explains educator dislike for the National Digest of Educational Statistics, particularly for its publication of achievement test scores for all States and some urban districts—but some of its stats aren’t. We can read, for example, that Arizona has the second-lowest annual per pupil cost in the nation –$9641 in 2008– behind only Utah at $7756, partially because it has had a near-national-average pupil-teacher ratio of 15-to-1 in 2008 (UT at 21.4) while the national average was 15.2 and $11950, and higher-spending States like Vermont came in at 10.4 and $15465. But national and State (including AZ) average p/t ratios have been cut by nearly half since the late ‘60’s, and test score curves haven’t moved by more than a few points. Student non-Proficiency rates for Reading and Math are in the 2/3 range on the Federal tests, which explains why States like AZ (and VT, and most others) spend extra to purchase, deploy, and publish the results of easier State tests, which not only show seemingly higher Proficiency scores but also disable any chance for State-by-State comparisons. The NDES doesn’t show SUSD test scores, but it does show that SUSD, like most States, spent almost half of its per-pupil budget on instruction. It spent less than 10% on building operations, for which lighting was –national average—probably a third. So, of course, SUSD wants to save significant money by going solar. The photo in the WSJ newspiece shows primary grade kids happily sprawled on the floor playing with solar ovens made from pizza boxes. When they encounter the Grade 4 NAEP Reading test, ¾ of them won’t be able to read at grade level, if SUSD test scores (recently removed from its web site) match AZ State averages for 2009. Superintendent Peterson offered no quote on whether parents expect their kids to learn to read in grade school, but he did say that “…the district was able to save $300,000 and recall six laid-off teachers…” apparently not to teach Reading but to supervise solar oven construction and operation. A quick Humble Scribe search of the new Common Core educational standards (supposedly adopted by most States to improve basic competencies) shows no reference to solar ovens.

As a new Talking Point, whether “the parents made us do it” as a defense for staff increases and class size reduction can produce further salutes when run up the flagpole (a little Madison Avenue advertising lingo, there) remains to be seen. You’ll know it when you see it.

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Solar ovens are, of course, a teachable-moment opportunity. Two connection-links, one recent and one ancient: The recent one goes back to the 70’s and the sudden consumer-safety uproar over play-kitchens with little stoves in which the high temp from a conventional electric lamp was used to bake cookies, at least until the lawsuits and bureaucratic fears over user-burns from lamp heat and eater-pains from poor sanitation largely shut down the then-traditional play-set kitchen toy business. The ancient one (Humble Scribe opinion) is more interesting. It involves Greek scholar Archimedes, a resident of the colony at Syracuse on the island of Sicily during 2nd century BC Roman naval attacks. Legend (recently proven by actual experiment) has it that he designed the Greek death-ray solar mirror to burn the invader’s warships in the harbor. Cook a pizza, learn some ancient history (but, of course, don’t use the sunbeam-focus technique on your classmate) and some modern ecology, and have the resulting snack at the close of class. What a deal. It almost makes not learning to read unimportant.

What is important (at least for us non-educators) is the mind-set of such highly-paid and presumably highly intelligent and highly motivated District Superintendents as Dr. Peterson, diverting primary grade classroom time from K-12’s Job 1 (a little Ford quality-focus lingo there), which once was but now isn’t the education to Reading and Math Proficiency of the pre-literate kids entrusted to their care, so he can direct the valuable hours instead to solar oven manufacture and operation. What possible priority argument can justify such policy decisions? The WSJ newspiece doesn’t say whether the grade-schoolers are expected to learn to read while inspecting the product labels on the pizza boxes they’re using, or whether the solar ovens are part of a John Dewey-based (Progressive VT educational theorist whose Wiki-biography explains that “…he decided that he was unsuited for teaching…”) learning-by-doing exercise in instructional theory.

Before the SUSD innovated in reading self-instruction with pizza boxes, (and if its un-published student test scores match NDES-published AZ averages) it wasn’t bring its students much closer to Proficiency in Reading as they were (socially?) promoted into higher grades. For 2009, the average 4th grade score was 210 (out of 500); the average 8th grade score was a higher 258, but the percentage Proficient was 27, up only 2 from the four-grades-earlier 25. See Table 130 in the 2010 NDES. But, as Dr. Peterson himself explains, the solar-oven aim wasn’t academic (to improve Reading scores) but economic (to re-hire laid-off staff) and in that it succeeded, precisely because Arizona, like many other blue-politics States, uses subsidies and grants to make solar-based electricity seem less expensive than fossil- or nuclear, and the SUSD could, while those tax- or debt-based rate-adjustments remain in force, seem to be money-saving. Superintendent Peterson is doubtless pleased that his schools are part of “…the solar power capacity at K-12 schools in the State…” just like California, “…which leads the nation in part because of its long-standing subsidy program…” as WSJ reporter Jim Carlton carefully explains. He does less well when he elaborates that “…solar energy also can provide value beyond savings, as an educational tool. At Rosa Parks Elementary School in Berkeley, CA, students race solar-powered cars and operate a solar-powered decorative fountain.” Parental demand, no doubt, just like small classes.