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Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College Columbia University

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Sachs Lectures Focus on Reform

Two of the most frequently debated issues in school reform were presented by Professor Henry Levin in his Sachs lectures in April. Levin, who is a visiting professor from Stanford University and the Julius and Rosa Sachs Lecturer at TC, spoke to the College community on his research on accelerated schools and voucher programs.

About a decade ago, Levin began the Accelerated Schools Program in California, to find new ways to help schools serve the needs of at-risk students. Levin's first lecture, described the reasoning behind the Accelerated Schools approach and the background of his research. He explained how accelerated schools change curriculum, integrate new methods of teaching and create a positive learning environment for all students. For example, teachers and parents are encouraged to collaborate on creative projects that engage students in what they're learning. Accelerated School centers also provide coaches to help schools identify the problems they are faced with and develop a plan to overcome those problems.

Levin compared test results before and after schools became accelerated schools, and compared the Accelerated Schools Program's results to other methods of school reform. He also discussed some of the obstacles to success that accelerated schools sometimes encounter, such as poor leadership by school officials. Funding for accelerated schools, he said, is not usually a problem, because it is not an expensive proposition, normally costing only one percent of the school budget to make the change.

His second lecture looked at school funding through voucher plans. He took the audience through the history of educational funding theories from early American history to recent political decisions in the Senate. Levin noted that there is not just one voucher plan, but many, each with different provisions.

One theory argues that the state should provide money for education but that the private market should provide the product, creating a competition for enrollment among schools. Another theory provides for vouchers according to income level, with lower-income families receiving higher dollar amounts per child.

Controversy arises with voucher plans and whether or not religious schools should receive state money. Eighty percent of private schools have religious affiliations, Levin said. The debate involves more than just the Constitutional separation of church and state. "Many fundamentalist schools don't put a lot of emphasis on achievement," Levin noted. "From the perspective of those with very strong values, they are willing to ignore some of the other criteria to promote those values."

But achievement cannot be the only criterion. According to Levin, "Ninety percent or more of the discussion on vouchers is limited to test scores." He proposed basing the decision on four major criteria and invited listeners to respond with their own ideas. His proposal included: the freedom to choose, efficiency of the plan, equity, and social cohesion provided for by the plan. In looking at all these aspects, Levin argued that the one advantage of voucher plans is freedom to choose, but when it comes to efficiency, equity and social cohesion, the traditional system of funding education is more advantageous. But people value each of these components differently.

The biggest problems he sees with voucher plans is the cost of a new system and what resources schools will contribute. Public schools provide transportation, food services and special education services. Often voucher schools don't have to provide any of those services.

The benefits are not substantial, according to Levin. Differences in achievement on math and reading tests and on SAT scores is minimal. "Should we change the entire system for small benefits?" he asks.

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