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Spotlight on Education

Wise steps needed for educated citizenry

Indianapolis Star, May 31, 2002

Indiana's education policy should be guided by three principles:

  • Every child deserves an excellent education. Scholastic achievement is a key determinant of a person's future success.
  • Tax dollars must be spent wisely on education. Greater funding can improve the schools, but it can also be squandered on ineffective programs. As a doctor, I have seen many medical treatments that were promising in theory but failed in practice. We need to choose education reforms that research shows will work.
  • Investment in education is central to the future of Indiana.  Too many of our college graduates leave Indiana for jobs in other states, and many who stay cannot find suitable positions. We need to foster economic growth with our education dollars, particularly in fields such as biotechnology.

Where do these three principles take us? We should emphasize three policies:

  • Smaller classes. Some children will do well whether they are in a class of 10 or 100, but others need the personalized attention that is possible only in smaller classes. Important research from Tennessee has demonstrated the benefits: When children were placed in classes of about 15 students, they achieved at much higher levels than in classes of 25. The greatest benefits were realized by those most likely to perform poorly. Smaller class size can also alleviate problems with teacher retention. If teachers can accomplish more in the classroom, they are less likely to leave for jobs in other states or to burn out and leave teaching altogether.
  • Earlier education. Research is finding more and more evidence that brain development occurs early in a child's life. Waiting until the child is old enough for first grade is often too late. Every child should have the opportunity to attend full-day kindergarten.  Indeed, pre-school programs are also crucial. After studying achievement scores in schools across the United States, researchers at RAND identified the expansion of public pre-kindergarten programs as a key strategy for improving achievement.
  • Industry-university partnerships. An important lesson from the success of Silicon Valley and other technology centers is the need for partnerships between industry and academia. Job growth in the 21st century will thrive where business can draw on the expertise of university researchers.  We have outstanding universities in Indiana, whose world-class professors conduct cutting-edge research. However, we have not kept up with other states, including our Midwestern neighbors, in the investments we make in our public institutions of higher learning.

Even in a time of budgetary constraints, we must not be shortsighted. As recognized by business groups, labor and educators, we are at a critical juncture. A wise education policy will do much to assure that the Indiana of the 21st century is the best ever.

Orentlicher is professor at the Indiana University Schools of Law and Medicine in Indianapolis. He is the Democratic candidate for state representative, 86th District, Indianapolis.


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