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Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / April 7, 1998 / 11 Nisan, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

A nation complacent?

IT HAS BEEN 15 years since we were declared "A Nation at Risk" due to our failing education system. The national response to the 1983 report was genuine alarm. We had just endured a deep recession and were bombarded with stories about the Japanese juggernaut.

Last month, the Third International Math and Science Survey released data showing that American 12th graders lag behind the entire world -- except Cyprus and South Africa -- in math and science achievement. Yet, as Bill Bennett put it, the national response seems to be "Whatever." Have we gone from "A Nation at Risk" to "A Nation Complacent"?

Though the survey results did evoke alarm from some education experts, parent organizations and conservative columnists, there was a bored shrug from othertubby teacher quarters. Several Harvard types wrote articles explaining away the dismal showing of America's kids, and still others argued that with the world's most booming economy, it makes no difference how our students stack up on mere academic tests. The Japanese, with an almost prostrate economy, don't scare us right now. So, why worry?

A group of 30 education reformers -- several of them members of the original commission that issued the Nation at Risk report -- met in Washington last week to answer that question.

In the first place, it isn't true that our education system is irrelevant to our economy. Our economy has many strengths -- flexibility, innovation, resilience -- that compensate for our sclerotic education system. America prides itself, rightly so, on its leadership in the information economy. But as Floyd Kvamme, a partner at a large firm in California's Silicon Valley explained, we must import a large number of technically trained people (23 percent of workers in California's high-tech industries are immigrants) to make the information sector run. And even with immigration, there are 400,000 high-paying jobs going begging in Silicon Valley.

Beyond economics, though, the argument for radically altering the education system is that it is denying to millions of American children -- particularly, but not exclusively, minorities -- a chance at the American dream.

Milton Friedman once pointed out that capitalism benefits the little guy far more than the wealthy. Under capitalism, it is ordinary people who get a chance to have their own possessions, space and leisure. As Friedman said, to the rich, it doesn't matter if they have hot and cold running water or running servants.

We are a wealthy country that can well afford to ensure that every child, not just the children of privilege, gets a great education. Yet, the benefits of capitalism do not flow to the average person when it comes to education because our education system lacks capitalism's driving engine: competition.

Dr. Checker Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a leading education philosopher, proposed at last week's meeting a list of reforms that would learn from other nation's successes as well as draw upon our own national strengths.

1) Institute national assessments that would be independent of politics.

2) Pass a charter school law in every state.

3) Eliminate geography as a determinant of school assignment. Or, in other words, let parents choose their children's schools.

4) Strap the money to the back of the child -- that is, fund students, not schools.

5) Don't force programs, like bilingual education, that parents don't want.

6) Use proven pedagogic methods and real curricula (no more whole language and whole math).

7) Eliminate teachers who don't know their subjects. (According to Diane Ravitch of New York University, the majority of middle-school teachers are teaching subjects in which they neither majored nor minored in college.)

8) Offer merit pay for great teachers.

9) Lengthen the school day or year -- or both. (In Japan, students attend 220 days per year as compared to our 180.)

10) Include parents much more in running the schools, participating in classrooms and more.

As Leah Vukmir, director of Wisconsin's Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools, noted, parents around the nation complain about the same problems -- low standards, too little direct instruction, fad teaching methods and no accountability. Every parent who wants the best for his or her children, and every American who wants the best for the country, should seriously consider Finn's list.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.