Friday, December 28, 2007

America’s Education Diet: Junk Food

The school wars pit parents who want their children to get decent schooling--at least the basics--against the public schools that refuse to offer what the public expects of them. For the past thirty years or more, parents have been losing badly.

Several organizations that observe the schools and their results on behalf of the public have been notifying us for years that our children are not being educated by the government schools. While such news might seem doubtful to some because they believe we run our own public schools, the sad fact is that we do not run them; they are run by strangers in far away offices and by the teachers unions. Those strangers--not any local school boards--are setting the agendas for public schools. As for parents, they have no say whatsoever.

Recently, the Center for Education Reform (CER) released a report titled, “The American Education Diet: Junk Food.” It begins, “It has been 23 years since the National Commission warned of a rising tide of mediocrity in American education. Since then, little has improved, leaving new generations at risk in an increasingly competitive society.” What follows are some of the sad details.

* Math and Science: “In 2003, America ranked 19th out of 29 nations,” adding, “The US has the poorest achievement outcomes per dollar spent on education. 62 percent of professors and 63 percent of employers say students lack basic math skills.” I asked a local high school science teacher what she teaches specifically. Her reply was, “I want all my students to know my life story.” Maybe that accounts for the poor showing in science content. In Math, CER researchers concluded, "The longer a student is in the US system, the lower his achievement compared to students in other countries.” This result is the fallout from a "fuzzy Math" corruculum.

* Reading: “American students’ reading achievement is steadily declining and the results are being felt both during and beyond the school years.” The report cites the Rand Corporation: “Our schools produce students who lack skills and are ill-prepared to deal with the demands of [college] and the workplace.” Public Agenda reports, “Seventy-three percent of students lack basic grammar and spelling skills and the ability to write clearly.”

Reading is key to most learning. The fact that public schools neglect to teach phonics – the key to reading ability – is the main reason why US students, even in the most affluent communities, are woefully inept in reading. They are simply not being taught the needed skills which come only with phonics.

* Writing: Stanley Fish, Dean at U. of IL, Chicago: “Students cannot write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are.”

* Language, History and Cultural Studies: “American schools graduate a large majority whose knowledge and vision stops at the American shoreline.” David McCullough, the famous writer of American history, recently lamented, “American students are for the most part historically illiterate.” Surveys show that history and civics is virtually unknown to American students. With test results showing proficiency levels generally in the twenty percent range, it is as though those things were not taught at all.

According to Education at a Glance, American teachers have the sixth highest salaries in the world, but their students have the sixth lowest achievement in the world. This implies deeply entrenched problems with the American system of education.” Studies show that neither more time-on-task nor more money seem to be turning out better educated students. The problems are not time or money, but quality.

* Grade Inflation: “2.4 million American students graduate from high school without necessary skills in the 3Rs.” That means about half of all graduates need remedial help during their first years in college. “Teachers’ low expectations for students result in inflated grades for work that is sub-par, leaving students woefully, and unknowingly, unprepared for life after high school.”

* Teachers: “A growing number of teachers are without qualifications in the subjects they teach. Despite the incompetence of many teachers, the union makes it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers.” If this is allowed to continue, the schools will continue to decline because more and more incompetent people will be teaching while competent teachers will quit in disgust.

CER concludes: “Public schools are cracking down on sugary drinks. Now it’s time for them to stop peddling a junk food curriculum.”


Ned Vare is a designer, author, former private school teacher, rancher, businessman, elected official.

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