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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 1999 /29 Elul, 5759

Don Feder

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Gross shoots, point blank at public education -- THE OTHER DAY, I saw a wire-service photo of a group of public-school teachers demonstrating, a thing they do far better than educating. One held a self-pitying sign that read, "I'm a teacher, not a political target."

In the eyes of an overpaid, underperforming profession, any move toward accountability is an attack on teachers.

What will educrats say about Martin Gross' new book, "The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools"? Gross had best invest in asbestos underwear.

After writing exposes of our tax system and culture, Gross' penchant for skewering sacred cows has led him to pen a critique of the nation's most appalling scandal.

The author notes that a few years ago U.S. 8th graders competed with students from five other countries in math. As a group, the American kids ranked highest in self-esteem (measured by their answer to the question "I am good at math") and lowest in actual scores. Conversely, students from South Korea were low on self-esteem but scored highest on the test.

That, says Gross, is a perfect analogy for America's educational establishment that's "self-confident, even arrogant, about their modern theories and methods of teaching" which have failed by every conceivable measure.

Other evidence cited by the author: In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, American 12th graders scored 19th among students from 21 countries, outperforming only those from Cyprus and South Africa.

In another survey, two out of three 17-year-olds didn't know the meaning of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Even fewer could correctly identify the War of 1812, Marshall Plan and Great Society.

Gross the elite that selects and trains teachers and shapes curricula. They have watered down instruction to the point where a diploma is a certification of absolutely nothing. They have given us a teaching cadre recruited from the lowest third of college graduates.

They have inflated costs while producing the most undereducated students in the industrialized world. They have substituted psycho-babble and ideological cant for learning.

Gross notes that in the past 20 years, education expenditures have increased twice as fast as the cost of living. In New York and New Jersey, teacher salaries average over $50,000 annually for 180 days of work.

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We've shoveled out funds for language labs, personal computers and Internet connections. We've experimented with new math, open classrooms and merit pay. We've set up magnet schools and charter schools. We've designated star teachers and master teachers.

The result? Our public schools do so abysmally at teaching math and science that 45 percent of the 13,000 Ph.D.'s awarded by U.S. colleges and universities in the hard sciences each year go to foreign students. Those who stay here keep our high-tech economy afloat.

The worst students go into teaching -- Gross cites the April 1998 Massachusetts licensing exam for prospective teachers, where 59 percent flunked. (Answers included such spelling atrocities as "horibal," "universel" and "compermise.") Not only that, but the training education students receive ensures that they will be well-qualified to run the nation's ignorance factories.

In place of knowledge in classroom subjects, ed schools concentrate on pedagogic techniques -- increasingly, psychoanalytical skills. Graduates, who can't teach, serve as unlicensed social workers and psychologists "Dr. Sigmund Freud has invaded the schoolhouse," Gross writes. "Not knowledge, but superior human relations, a sense of self-confidence ... and a stronger, warmer rapport among teacher, parent and child have become the new criteria." The result is students who need a calculator to do simple addition but feel really good about themselves.

Gross has a series of sound recommendations, including stiffer licensing exams, a complete overhaul of the school curriculum (replacing whole-language reading instruction with phonics) and vouchers.

The most creative proposal: closing and padlocking schools of education. Gross would substitute one year of postgraduate training, open to those with a four-year degree and a minimum 3.0 grade-point average.

"The Conspiracy of Ignorance" is required back-to-school reading. If it's read widely enough, someday, we may just elect an education president who understands that the house is on fire and the blaze won't be extinguished with more federal expenditures.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder can be reached by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate