Will ‘education’ presidents learn?Here we go again: Another administration, another education president.
By: Gene Lyons, The Dickinson Press
Here we go again: Another administration, another education president. The United States has no other kind. At least since the 1983 study “A Nation at Risk,” every administration has declared its determination to save school children from what it called “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”
To hear President Barack Obama tell it, mediocrity’s winning. Recently, he spoke to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Sadly, he informed them “that despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we’ve let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us. Let me give you a few statistics. In eighth-grade math, we’ve fallen to ninth place. Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours 3 to 1. Just a third of our 13- and 14-year-olds can read as well as they should. ... (A) stubborn gap persists between how well white students are doing compared to their African-American and Latino classmates. ... What’s at stake is nothing less than the American Dream.”
Permit me a sigh. This “American Dream” business comes up whenever politicians find themselves at serious odds with reality. It’s harmless enough insofar as it declares our common hope to provide our children with greater opportunities. It can become downright pernicious, however, when those dreams are illusions.
To any skeptic who’s followed educational reforms since the Reagan administration, two things should be clear: Despite Obama’s doom-saying, there’s been genuine, measurable progress in American public schools. Second, fads, panaceas and miracle cures are as common as infallible betting systems at the racetrack. Most have exactly the same utility.
It’s simply false that American kids have “fallen” to ninth place in math. They’ve actually risen to that status from 23rd among 41 nations taking part in that same study in 1995. By 2003, the United States ranked 15th. However much sense it makes to compare the United States to rich, culturally homogeneous countries like Sweden and Finland that set the curve, it’s doubtful comparisons to Malaysia mean anything at all.
Singapore’s kids outperform America’s 3-to-1 at what? Obama didn’t say. All of them? Or just those selected into a “college prep” curriculum? Almost certainly the latter. As an admirably skeptical article buried in the B section of The Washington Post pointed out: “The United States remains at the top of the World Economic Forum’s 2008-09 Global Competitiveness Report. (Switzerland was second, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Singapore.)”
Reporter Valerie Strauss’s source was University of Arizona scholar Gerald Bracey, author of a fine book called “Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered.” Those dismal reading levels? Bracey cites studies showing that “were kids in other countries to sit for our NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) exams, no country would have a majority of students proficient in reading using NAEP achievement levels.”
Most troubling were Obama’s comparisons among the states. It’s true Mississippi lags behind Wyoming in reading scores. Also that more than half of Mississippi public school students are African-American. More than two-thirds qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Furthermore, notes Bob Somerby, in the Deep South “forced illiteracy was official state policy, for several centuries, for what is now (Mississippi’s) largest student racial group ... it was against the law ... to teach black children how to read.”
Yet the good news is that, again contrary to Obama, racial achievement gaps have steadily narrowed since the 1970s. (Check this from the National Center for Educational Statistics if you doubt me: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/results2004/sub-reading-race.asp).
So what’s going on? Unfortunately, the president appears to have succumbed to the latest educational miracle cures: Tougher standards, charter schools and merit pay for teachers, all touted by Republicans perennially eager to discipline the lower classes. In the actual world, none has been proven to work.
Everybody wants kids to do their best; imposing artificially high achievement standards, however, is like standing on that metaphorical beach commanding the tide. Awhile back, Los Angeles decided to require all high school graduates to pass Algebra; the result was higher dropout rates. Period.
Charter schools are the latest version of the “Talented and Gifted” craze. (Years ago, I won an argument with my wife by challenging her to name a single white kid in our neighborhood who hadn’t been declared a budding genius. A long moment passed. “Sometimes I hate you,” she said.) That is, they’re a sop to striving middle-class parents like the Obamas. Like religious schools, some do well as long as they’re able to cut highly motivated kids from the herd.
Alas, studies show the bigger charter schools get, the smaller their advantages.
Then there’s merit pay. Want your kid’s school to resemble “The Office,” or the Dilbert comic strip? Introduce pay increases based on student performance. Who’ll want to teach those underachievers then?
Maybe some Mother Teresa will open a charter school.
Otherwise, they’re screwed.
— Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner.