George Will

Although many children are already performing well below grade when they arrive at kindergarten, the district has achieved dramatic improvement in elementary school test scores. Romer thinks this is because an elementary school ``is a small learning community.'' More elementary school teachers than high school teachers want to be what they are, because elementary school teachers have the satisfaction of what Romer calls ``ownership'' of the child. Secondary school teachers are more oriented to the subject matter, and if a child fails math or science, well, the child did not have the suitable background, which is someone else's fault.

The school district's dramatic improvement in elementary school scores is the result of a rigorous curriculum featuring instruction in phonics. Plus what Romer calls ``really trained teachers -- trained after they leave school,'' trained especially in how to teach reading. Plus teaching coaches in classrooms. Plus -- Romer calls this ``the real culture-changer'' -- diagnostic measurement every 10 weeks that returns results in 24 hours, revealing what homework is needed, and shaping classroom instruction for each child during the subsequent 10 weeks.

To those who criticize ``teaching to the test,'' Romer responds: That is what flight schools do. Because we take flying seriously. He likens testing throughout the school year to what many football teams now do by studying photos during the game, when diagnosis is immediately useful.

Romer, whose reformist agenda has a Rumsfeldean breadth, believes the six-hour school day is too short. So is the 180-day (163 for 300,000 Los Angeles students) school year, which is a relic of 19th-century America, when children were needed on ranches and farms in late spring and early autumn. In Japan and Europe the school year is 60 days longer. And Romer thinks it is unwise to base teachers' pay on length of service plus post-B.A. credentials rather than on students' cognitive accomplishments, plus peer review by other teachers.

Most contemporary policy arguments -- how many foreign interventions are too many, or how much deficit is too much -- are questions of prudence. The education of poor children is a question of justice. Romer is, strictly speaking, a radical -- one who would go to the roots of things. An American rarity, his radicalism is commensurate with America's glaring failure to equip poor children -- none of whom asked to be here -- to thrive here.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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