The Riehl World: Budget Cuts & School Reform

by Richard J. Riehl on August 23, 2012

About 11,000 students are expected to head back to Carlsbad schools Wednesday, the same number as two years ago. But this year they’ll be greeted by nearly 60 fewer teachers and a school year shortened by three days. High schoolers will find their classrooms bulging with an average of 39 classmates (NCT, June 28, School Trustees adopt $77M budget).

The school district was forced to cut spending by $7 million over the last two years. It will only get worse if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative fails to pass. If that happens, school officials say, the school year may shrink by as much as three weeks.

It’s a lose/lose proposition for students: larger classes and less learning time. The ones hurt most will be those who need more individual attention. The test score achievement gap shows they’ll be from low income families, the ones already being left behind.While schools struggle to make ends meet, the demand for reform remains. The Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, like No Child Left Behind, relies on high stakes tests as the measure of success.

But Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at New York University, believes elevating the teaching profession, rather than standardized testing, is the essential ingredient for better schools (“How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools,” New York Review of Books, March 22).

Ravitch points to Finland, which has no standardized tests, but whose 15-year-olds lead the world in international surveys of knowledge and skills. Teachers are no more highly paid than in the U.S., but they command much higher esteem as professionals. Only top university students are permitted to enter teacher training, and they must earn master’s degrees before they begin teaching.

Teachers are given learning goals and held accountable for results. As professionals, they design and develop their own materials, teaching methods, and tests. Classes are limited to 20 students. In-service training and collaboration, as in other professions, assure quality control.

Ravitch criticizes school reform in the U.S. for using a “model that seeks to emulate the free market, by treating parents as consumers and students as products, with teachers as compliant workers.” “Children need better schools,” she concludes, but “they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education…and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement.”

Finland has the second lowest child poverty rate of the world’s wealthiest nations, according to the 2012 UNICEF annual report. Just 5 percent of its children live in poverty. It’s 23 percent in the U.S., ranking 34th, just above Romania.

That’s what’s so sad about Carlsbad’s school budget cuts. Low income families will be the biggest losers.

Richard Riehl writes from Carlsbad. Contact him at

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