Archive for Thursday, April 24, 2008

As for education, we remain a nation at risk

April 24, 2008


If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. - "A Nation At Risk" (1983)

Let us limp down memory lane to mark this week's melancholy 25th anniversary of a national commission's report that galvanized Americans to vow to do better. Today the nation still ignores what had been learned years before 1983.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once puckishly said that data indicated that the leading determinant of the quality of public schools, measured by standardized tests, was the schools' proximity to Canada. He meant that the geographic correlation was stronger than the correlation between high test scores and high per-pupil expenditures.

Moynihan also knew that schools cannot compensate for the disintegration of families, and hence communities - the primary transmitters of social capital. No reform can enable schools to cope with the 36.9 percent of all children and 69.9 percent of black children today born out of wedlock, which means, among many other things, a continually renewed cohort of unruly adolescent males.

'Seismic' report

Chester Finn, a former Moynihan aide, notes in his splendid new memoir ("Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik") that during Depression-era job scarcity, high schools were used to keep students out of the job market, shunting many into nonacademic classes. By 1961, those classes had risen to 43 percent of all those taken by students.

After 1962, when New York City signed the nation's first collective bargaining contract with teachers, teachers began changing from members of a respected profession into just another muscular faction fighting for more government money. Between 1975 and 1980, there were a thousand strikes involving a million teachers whose salaries rose as students' scores on standardized tests declined.

In 1964, SAT scores among college-bound students peaked. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act codified confidence in the correlation between financial inputs and cognitive outputs in education.

But in 1966, the Coleman report, the result of the largest social science project in history, reached a conclusion so "seismic" - Moynihan's description - that the government almost refused to publish it.

Released quietly on the Fourth of July weekend, the report concluded that the qualities of the families from which children come to school matter much more than money as predictors of schools' effectiveness. The crucial common denominator of problems of race and class - fractured families - would have to be faced.

But it wasn't. Instead, shopworn panaceas - larger teacher salaries, smaller class sizes - were pursued as colleges were reduced to offering remediation to freshmen.

In 1976, for the first time in its 119-year history, the National Education Association, the teachers union, endorsed a presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, who repaid it by creating the Education Department, a monument to the premise that money and government programs matter most. At the NEA's behest, the nation has expanded the number of teachers much faster than the number of students has grown. Hiring more, rather than more competent, teachers meant more dues-paying union members.

Nation at risk

For decades, schools have been treated as laboratories for various equity experiments. Fads incubated in education schools gave us "open" classrooms, teachers as "facilitators of learning" rather than transmitters of knowledge, abandonment of a literary canon in the name of "multiculturalism," and so on, producing a majority of high school juniors who could not locate the Civil War in the proper half-century.

In 1994, Congress grandly decreed that by 2000 the high school graduation rate would be "at least" 90 percent and that American students would be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement."

Moynihan, likening such goals to Soviet grain quotas - solemnly avowed, never fulfilled - said: "That will not happen." It did not.

Moynihan was a neoconservative before neoconservatism became a doctrine of foreign policy hubris. Originally, it taught domestic policy humility. Moynihan, a social scientist, understood that social science tells us not what to do but what is not working, which today includes No Child Left Behind. Finn thinks NCLB got things backward: "The law should have set uniform standards and measures for the nation, then freed states, districts and schools to produce those results as they think best."

Instead, it left standards up to the states, which have an incentive to dumb them down to make compliance easier.

A nation at risk? Now more than ever.

- George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 9 years, 10 months ago

Oh yes, another pundit who is an expert in education. And why isn't he teaching? Oh yeah, it doesn't pay enough. George, why don't you get into the classroom and compete with video games, buddy parents (worse than absent parents), TV, movies, and pundits telling the kids that their teachers are just worthless money grubbers. George, you wouldn't last a whole grading period, let alone a whole school year.

libertarianjim 9 years, 10 months ago

Will goes wrong assuming the Federal Government setting uniform standards is appropriate. The last thing we need is the Federal Government indoctrinating our children to its inadequate standards and "one size fits all" vision of America. Our schools and country need less intrusion by the Fed, not more. The biggest problems in this country are caused by Congress, not corrected by Congress.

avoice 9 years, 10 months ago

One of the most apparent flaws in the debate about education is the fact that "educators" instantly jump on anyone who tries to begin the discussion. If educators could get over their defensive attitudes, we could get started on a real road to progress. All we have now is the same kind of finger-pointing that I observe when siblings are quarreling. What is needed is a real adult who can help everyone rise above their defensiveness and take a good look at their personal culpability. It seems to me that George Will's editorial attempts to do just that.

Paul R Getto 9 years, 10 months ago

NCLB is a joke, arguably unconstitutional and not an appropriate venue for the feds to enter. On the other hand, we need to take serious look at the way schools are structured in each state and take appropriate action to help them to serve more students well.

RedwoodCoast 9 years, 10 months ago

One education reform I'm all in favor of is teaching second languages to our kids starting in elementary school. Developmentally, language-learning occurs more readily at that age than in high school or college.

ksdivakat 9 years, 10 months ago

Ok...I need help and I dont know where to turn so I thought I would throw all this out here and hopefully someone will be able to give me some direction.I have a 14 y/o at SWJHS, her grade card came 2 F's, 3 D's and a ton of latework, in fact since 3-7 shes turned in 13 assignments, out of 525 pts shes earned 45 pts in biology. We have grounded, taken everything away from her, nixed school activities such as dances, worlds of fun, and she STILL today, refuses to turn in the work. I have went to the school, I have begged and pleaded for them to help and do something. They will not hold her back because of the social stigma, they will not punish her, even when she forges our names onto her progress reports. We spent 3 hours on Monday organizing her late work and buying new folders etc to keep her organized, still she will not turn in the work, weve had her in counseling, weve made her do some pretty hard work, yard work, not slave work, and still nothing, she refuses to do it.....HELP!!! Please we are desperate and dont know where to turn, she goes into HS next year and I fear that she will fail for sure if we dont deal with the laziness and rebellion, but what is left to do?? I seriously would welcome any suggestions!!! Thank you

cato_the_elder 9 years, 10 months ago

"...schools cannot accommodate for the disintegration of families." Assuming that this is properly attributed to Moynihan, he was absolutely correct. Nevertheless, by the 1980's many of the public educators in this country had determined that they had been granted the right and the duty to take over the job of raising - not just educating - all children whom they deemed to be "at risk" (which in many cases is both insulting and demeaning to hard-working parents in both traditional and single-parent families whose incomes don't meet a certain level or who simply live in disadvantaged parts of a community), on the theory that the public education system has the obligation to make up for a child's disadvantages as perceived by school administrators ("It Takes a Village to Raise a Child" - remember?). To accommodate this, the education think tank not only decided to introduce many subjects that had previously been strictly between parents and their children; in order to level out unavoidable inequalities of all kinds affecting many students of all backgrounds, they also began to put forth the notion that "everyone is really an A student," a national obsession that has resulted in significantly watered-down academic standards. An "A" in most high schools today bears no resemblance to an "A" in 1964, the peak SAT year to which Will refers, and many education theorists have advocated strongly for doing away with grades and/or class rankings altogether in order that no one's feelings will be hurt. In Lawrence, a few years ago our school board ago did away with requiring a passing grade in Biology in order to be graduated from high school - they threw in the towel after they were told that there simply wasn't a way to get everyone to pass the subject. At present, the most insidious byproduct of all of this is the re-emergence of Outcomes-Based Education, which has taken its most virulent form in "No Child Left Behind," a guaranteed road to even more mediocrity in public education. The sponsors of NCLB have never realized that you can teach anyone to dunk a basketball - all you have to do is claim that you are advocating a 10-foot goal but then quietly lower the goal to 6 feet so that everyone is able to dunk the ball. (In Kansas, for example, since "QPA" was introduced in the mid-1990's, how many Kansas schools have been 'de-accredited?') The real tragedy in this is not just that standards are continually lowered to the detriment of all; it's the fact that the more that public education gets watered down, the more that parents will turn to private schools - and what were once excellent public school systems will become nothing but holding tanks for mediocrity. If you strongly support the concept of public education, as many of us do, this is a bleak prospect indeed. The public schools should let the teachers teach, let the chips fall where they may, and stop taking it upon themselves to act as social engineers.

oldvet 9 years, 10 months ago

ksdivakat-first I would start with a complete medical exam and workup... there could be some medical problem you and your teen don't know about...I would also do a drug screen for any and all drugs and alcohol... good kids go suddenly down the tubes, this is not an uncommon situation...Regardless of these outcomes, consider professional help that specializes in this area. Public schools are not prepared or capable of handling these types of behavioral problems. Defiant teens need specialized care. Take a look at this: are multiple residential facilities like this and this type of facility may be required in your case. Two of my friends have used similar facilities with success.Good luck.

RedwoodCoast 9 years, 10 months ago

Hey, ksdivakat, maybe figure out what really makes her happy and try to indulge her in it every now and then. Unless, of course, you are already doing this or the happy activities are counterproductive. But Oldvet has a point. Perhaps she is suffering from some psychological issue like depression.

ksdivakat 9 years, 10 months ago

We have done everything redwood, literally, Im her stepmom, shes been with us for 6 yrs full time as her biological mom took off many times and is not stable, and we know these are issues, and weve taken her to counseling, at bert nash with 2 diff counselors and they both quit!! They said that she just wants to play games so there was no sense in her continuing......I am at my wits end, completely, I do spend alot of time with her, and we do things that she likes and still......techers are calling me, emailing me, etc, expecting some miracle from me and I just dont know what to do, I realize I am a failure as a parent, but I want her to succeed and I just dont know where else to turn, I am going to check out the treatment facility but they are all in other states from what I see so far........

weeslicket 9 years, 10 months ago

in a very real and unpleasant tale, ksdivakat illustrates exactly mr. wills's point about families and education and the american future.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 9 years, 10 months ago

ksdivakatHang in there. Keep up the therapy. Unfortunately it takes awhile.

Speakout 9 years, 10 months ago

ksdivakat, Be patient. She is a slow bloomer and until she finds a need to succeed she never will. I did my masters thesis on individually guided education and "Summerhill" a theory and book about a school that had no set curriculum except to let student evolve into learners. They concluded that when a topic or concept strikes a student's curiosity they become ferocious learners and doers. I don't know if this fits your situation or not, but she has a lot of undoing of something before she can move forward. If she is happy doing this, let her be happy and if she fails, she fails. But the failure won't last forever. She will soon become bored and some day she will get the idea and nothing will stop her from learning everything she can. The desire to learn is not something you can legislate or force on someone. It must come from inside and when it does and the burning to know becomes her life's desire, she will become a success. Isn't that your goal, her success? Remember, Einstein wasn't a great student.

Speakout 9 years, 10 months ago

cato_the_elder you are 100% correct. The schools over seas have stringent standards and unless you meet them, regardless of your social upbringing or background, you do not graduate. Period. I graduated from High School in 1964. I was a mediochre student until I found my niche and then no one could stop me. But my high school was tougher than college and I had to study harder to get a good grade in high school than I did at an Honors University.Standards are standards and they should never be compromised for anyone for any reason. You make it or you don't. Parents have to buy into that and start their children on a path to success long before they reach middle school. One thing I will never forget, is that if I got into trouble at school, I was in double trouble at home! Today, parents blame the teachers for their child's failures no matter how hard the teacher tries to education the child. Children need to learn self discipline but that is not part of the plan today.

RedwoodCoast 9 years, 10 months ago

ksdivakat: I'm sorry to hear that. My younger brother caused much grief for my parents when he was in highschool. Years afterwards, my brother complained to me that it felt like my parents and the counselor were ganging up on him. He felt like everyone always dwelt on the bad things he did (understandable) and didn't reinforce the positive enough. I'm not saying that is what is occurring in your case, but it is something to be conscious of.I certainly don't want to be a parent at this point in my life, so I don't have any ground to speak on childraising. I wish you well.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.