Jewish World Review May 16, 2003 / 14 Iyar 5763

Thomas Sowell

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A sign of The Times | They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That was certainly true of a recent photo of a little 7-year-old boy holding a sign demanding more money for the schools and holding his fist in the air.

He was part of a demonstration organized by his teachers, and including parents and other students, all of whom were transported to California's state capital in Sacramento to protest budget constraints brought on by the state's huge deficit.

There was a time when taking children out of classes to fight the political battles of adults would have been considered a shameless neglect of duty. But that was long ago.

The little boy with the sign and his fist raised in the air is just one of the millions of victims of a shameless education establishment. It is not just that he is not in class learning the things he will need for his own mental development. He is out in the streets learning dangerous lessons for the future.

The most dangerous lesson of all is that he doesn't need to know what he is talking about, that what matters is venting his feelings and being an activist.

He is learning to let himself be manipulated by others, setting him up for all sorts of pied pipers he is likely to encounter in later years, who may lead him into anything from personal degeneracy to movements like the Taliban or the cult that Jim Jones led to their doom at Jonestown.

What can a 7-year-old boy know about the issues that he is carrying a sign for or shaking his fist about? Has he even heard -- much less understood -- any other side of the issue he is being used for?

Can he have read any of the many empirical studies which show that there is very little correlation between the amount of money that schools spend and the quality of the education that the children receive? Per pupil spending in Washington, D.C. schools is among the highest in the nation at $13,000 but test results are among the lowest.

American school children have more money spent on them than the children in countries that regularly finish higher on international tests than we do.

When confronted with the undeniable fact that American high school students repeatedly finish at or near the bottom on international tests, there is a standard teachers' union party line. Supposedly only the elite finish high school in other countries, the spin goes, so it is unfair to compare other countries' elite students with our average students.

If there was ever any validity to this argument, it is long past. Countries with a higher percentage of their youngsters finishing high school still have their students outperform American students.

Sometimes the education establishment tries to use the fact that American students don't do badly in the lower grades. That is true: Our children are not stupid. It is just that the longer they stay in our school system, the further they fall behind the rest of the world.

This is not accidental. Far too many public schools have far too many other agendas than providing children with intellectual skills. Political propaganda is just one. Using the children as guinea pigs for fashionable notions is another. And, at the top of the agenda is protecting the jobs of teachers, even those who are grossly incompetent.

Those who engineered this educational disaster have lots of glib excuses. One of the most popular is that students and parents are flawed. The great non sequitur seems to be that, if there is anything wrong with parents or students, there can't be anything wrong with the schools.

But, if the current crop of "educators" had better students, better parents, and more money, all that it would amount to would be smaller classes in nicer surroundings having their time wasted on the fads and fetishes that take the place of education in our classrooms.

We would have more expensive incompetence. And we would have more children being prepared to be led by pied pipers, like the little boy with his sign and his fist in the air.

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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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