For nearly three decades, ever since the 1983 "Nation At Risk" report, education reformers have generally agreed that smaller class sizes are a key to improving schools. And class sizes have, in fact, plummeted.
Some of us baby boomers can remember being in public school classes with 35 or more kids. Today, the nationwide average is around 20. Yet as we all know by now, school test scores have stagnated even as education costs have soared.
So today’s reformers might conclude that a combination of mediocre teachers, educational fads, multiculturalism and an ACLU-ized learning environment have overwhelmed the putative advantages of smaller class size. And oh, by the way, all the new teachers that we’ve hired aren’t necessarily good at their jobs.
Meanwhile, one bold school reformer challenges the idea that a smaller class size has anything to do with educational quality. In a remarkable op-ed in The Washington Post earlier this week, Eva Moskowitz, a former New York city councilwoman, came right to the point in her first line:
"That class size should be small is revered like an article of faith in this country. Its adherents include parents, education groups, politicians and, of course, the unions whose ranks it swells." Then she countered, "Yet small class size is neither a guarantor nor a prerequisite of educational excellence."
Moskowitz has paid a heavy price for her candor. Once a rising star in Manhattan politics, she came to see the teachers union as an obstacle to learning. So, of course, the union retaliated against her. Six years ago, she lost a race for Manhattan borough president to a union-backed opponent.
Now she is the head of the Success Charter Network, which operates seven charter schools in New York City. Some might say her new job gives her a financial interest in criticizing the education status quo, but it also gives her an interest in good education, because her schools must compete for students.
So Moskowitz’s ideas for improving education are worth noting. In a nutshell, her charter schools replace human inputs with technology inputs. Class sizes are bigger, but kids get laptops and Kindles, and teachers use electronic blackboards and other high-tech tools. These learning tools aren’t free, of course, but relative to the cost of more teachers, machines are a bargain.
All through the industrial revolution, automation has increased productivity, saved money and increased quality. The process of mass production can be refined and tweaked to the point where every item coming off the assembly line has been raised to a peak of efficiency and reliability.
School children aren’t widgets, to be sure, but their learning tools can be made uniformly better, and the child’s interaction with those tools can be measured and thus improved upon. As a result, fewer teachers are needed — educators can focus on inspiration, while the machines cover the rote work.
It’s particularly important that tea party Republicans understand Moskowitz’s techno-transformative message.
If GOP officials simply hack away at the budget of the current underperforming education system, the system won’t improve, especially if the surviving edu-crats resolve to sabotage their shrunken empire, in hopes of seeing it epic-fail on the GOP’s watch.
So Republicans should learn to shift the technology-to-labor ratio in schools, just as Moskowitz is doing. They need to remember a basic rule: If it’s labor intensive, it will be expensive.
Republicans ought to stick to their government-downsizing plan, but they need to embrace, in addition, the language of technology-based reform. Better life through technology is the story of the past three centuries.
The GOP needs to make that trend its friend.
James P. Pinkerton was a domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and now is a Fox News contributor and editor of SeriousMedicineStrategy.org.