Wanted - Clear thinking in the debate on educational "adequacy"

by Peter Bearse, Ph.D.

There’s a nearly complete lack of clear thinking about what’s important in the debate on what educational “adequacy” represents in terms of either substance or money.

First, there’s a tendency to assume that there either is or must be a direct connection between adequacy and educational funding. All the NH Constitution commands the General Court (legislature) to do is “cherish” education; responsibility for implementing whatever “cherish” may mean is left to local authority, not statewide dictates of either Court (General or Supreme). So, let’s start by recognizing that the adequacy and funding issues are separable.

Second, the lack of any reference to international standards is remarkable. I would even go so far as to say: Pretty Darn Dumb. After all, we all live in an increasingly globalized, world-competitive economy. Young people today need to be able to compete with graduates from schools in Europe, China, India and Singapore, among other countries of our “small, small world.” Whatever counts for educational “adequacy” is a moving target. Every year, if not faster, the ante for what counts is being upped by our international competitors. It’s an Einsteinian world, so let’s recognize that “what counts” is relative to foreign competition.

Third, we can count on the fingers of one hand the areas of educational achievement that really count in international competition. They are the 3R’s [reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic (math)] plus science and creative and critical thinking. The latter overlaps one area that’s special to our own state and nation’s democratic heritage: Civics, or what young people need to know to function as responsible citizens in a democratic republic. So add up the scores: 3R’s + Science + 3C’s (Civics + Creative thinking + Critical thinking). Along with international standards, there are international, educational “best practices”. We can; in fact, for the sake of our children, we must learn from our foreign competitors. Competition is healthy, internationally as well as domestically, for the sake of education as well as other “industries.” Do we want our children to be less well-off than we are? Let’s recognize that that the standards that count are being set abroad and make reference to them.

Finally, there’s no humility in the debate. The key actors with power and responsibility, members of the two Courts, are acting like know it alls in an area where they both know very little. Those who are making decisions on education that affect our kids’ futures need to learn more about what works where and for whom, educationally. The major zone of ignorance is on research that would demonstrate, via valid statistical studies, the degree to which schools and school finance make significant differences to educational achievement. HR 8, which properly challenges recent decisions of the Supreme Court on school finance in NH, makes no reference to such research as providing any basis for the Court’s decisions. Let’s pay some attention to it.

A few suggestions can now be made: The best way for the General Court to demonstrate to the Supreme Court that they truly honor the NH Constitutional requirement to “cherish” education would be to (1) define “adequacy” in terms of a performance accountability and benchmarking system for schools, one that measures performance in each of the areas of educational achievement noted earlier, and (2) begin a set of well-designed studies of what differences in achievement are attributable to different educational-institutional and funding arrangements. In addition, given the disconnect between state-level guidelines for adequacy and local responsibility for education, the legislature should provide a blanket allowance for local authorities to adopt whatever taxing arrangements they would like to adopt to finance schools, including charter schools.