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Think teachers, not programs

Last week saw educators repeating a process they're unhappily familiar with: explaining American students' mediocre performance.

The harsh headlines: Despite massive infusions of cash, discussion, and program-building on their behalf, US fourth-graders received on average exactly the same scores on a key test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, that they did in 1998 and 1992. The depressing details: The gap between the best and worst readers widened further.

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What makes this particularly disheartening is that the 1990s were the decade of education. Parents who 10 years ago had no idea what a standard was now toss around terms like "high-stakes testing" and "social promotion" with alacrity.

But still. All those programs and budgets - Education Secretary Rod Paige cited the $125 billion that has been poured into low-income education efforts over 25 years - and so little to show.

President Bush will likely peddle his $5 billion proposal to help kids read by third grade with greater gusto. "Research-based" curricula may gain more currency.

But politicians and districts should perhaps reconsider where money is spent. Our lead story (right) points out that various incentives for prospective teachers are alluring, but likely won't dramatically broaden the pool of candidates. After all, what's $4,000 more a year for five years, say, if you start in the mid-$20,000s and the job can be tougher than running a major corporation?

Good teachers - not programs - are said to make a difference in kids' lives. Once states figure out how to attract more of them (and real money might help), test scores may start heading north.

E-mail newcomba@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor