Jewish World Review May 1, 2003 / 29 Nissan 5763

Thomas Sowell

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A couple of clues | Two unrelated events last week provide some clues as to why our education system is failing.

First, Canada College in San Mateo, California, held a job fair -- for kindergartners! Apparently there is nothing too silly to spend the taxpayers' money on, even when the state has a record deficit.

While Canada College supplied the event, the schools had to supply the kids. Why are our schools at all levels so willing -- even eager -- to take children out of the classroom?

Our "educators" seem desperate to find almost anything to do other than actually educate the children entrusted to them. Writing letters to public figures, play-acting events in history, "discovering" math -- anything other than acquiring the intellectual skills they will need in adulthood.

The other thing that happened last week was announcement of a study showing that forcing students to take tests that have real consequences for the students, the schools, and their teachers, seems to help minority students. This should not be a surprise to anyone but these results go completely against the grain of what our "educators" believe and practice.

According to the New York Times, a substantial majority of teachers said that "mandatory testing led to teaching in ways that contradicted their own ideas of sound educational practice." But it is precisely these teachers' ideas of what constitutes "sound educational practice" that has led to American students scoring at or near the bottom on international tests, for years on end.

The excuse for our students' dismal performances, even against students from poorer countries who spend much less per pupil, is that most of our students finish high school, so that international tests are comparing our average students with a select group of elite students who complete high school in other countries.

If this excuse were ever true, it has long since ceased to be true. There are countries which have as high a percentage of their students finishing secondary school as we do -- or in some cases a higher percentage -- and they still outperform our students.

The problem is not that our "educators" have some false ideas but that they are too dogmatic to pay attention to hard evidence that contradicts those ideas. If some notion is fashionable among teachers and administrators, that is all that seems to matter. If it is an excuse that will get them off the hook for the educational disasters of our schools, then it is an excuse that they will use for decades on end, without ever questioning it.

Unfortunately, it is the students who will pay the price -- big time and for the rest of their lives -- for the fads and fetishes which substitute for education in our schools. No one will pay a higher price than low-income minority students, who often have nowhere else to get a serious intellectual foundation, other than the public schools which keep shirking this responsibility in favor of "activities" and "exciting" experiments.

Now that a study has shown that minority students benefit from tests with consequences, do not expect teachers or administrators to pay the slightest attention to this study -- except as something to deplore or try to discredit. Real teaching is hard work. Job fairs, play-acting, assigning students to keep diaries or write letters to public figures, or encouraging them to vent emotions in class -- all these things are a lot easier than teaching.

Tests with consequences make it harder to play all these games. Moreover, these tests give parents, voters and taxpayers some way to keep track of how well or how badly the public schools are doing their work. No longer can a lot of cheery-sounding mush from teachers and administrators substitute for hard facts.

The idea that schools are doing minority students a favor by going easy on them shows either unbelievable naivete or calloused cynicism. Nor are parents or community "leaders" doing these students a favor by sending them to school with negative attitudes or a chip on their shoulder over the past.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Courts have made it a legal ordeal to get rid of disruptive students who are preventing other students from learning.

There are lots of people who need to change. We might start with getting rid of such things as job fairs for kindergartners.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Controversial Essays." (Sales help fund JWR.)


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