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Jewish World Review Nov. 16,1999 /7 Kislev, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Failure and fraud

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- NEARLY TWO-THIRDS of the 8th graders in New York City failed a recent statewide test in English and more than three-quarters failed the statewide test in math. Nearly half of these youngsters did so badly in math that the scores indicate "they can barely add and subtract," according to a report in the New York Post.

The local education establishment had one of their automatic defenses. A brief paragraph in the New York Times said it all: "Some school officials in New York City, stunned by the low scores, suggested yesterday that they could only have come from unrealistically difficult tests or a flawed scoring system."

In other words, we couldn't possibly be doing anything wrong!

Whatever its educational failures, the system is world class when it comes to excuse-making. Maybe that is because they have had so many years of experience at it.

There are whole layers of defenses. The first layer is that somebody else is to blame. If it is not the "unrealistically difficult" tests or "a flawed scoring system," then it must be the parents, television, or "society." It can't possibly be us.

At a more sophisticated level, educational gurus question the very concept of intelligence and the tests used to measure it. Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard's school of education writes of "multiple intelligences" beyond the range of tests. However, if there are multiple intelligences, then there can also be multiple stupidities. But educators don't go that route.

Whatever Professor Gardner means or intends -- and clarity is not his strong suit -- the notion of multiple intelligences is a great escape hatch for those who avoid accountability. Iron-clad tenure, lockstep pay scales and education gurus serve that purpose.

All this is particularly painful to me as someone who was educated in the New York City public school system, before the teachers unions and the educational fads turned it into a shambles. When my Marine Corps platoon of New Yorkers was tested during boot camp at Parris Island back in 1951, our scores were so high that one of the testers asked us: "Where are you guys from? New York or Pennsylvania?"

New York was a symbol of educational excellence in those days, not the basket case it has become in recent times. When I looked at the math textbooks used by my nieces in Harlem, I discovered that they were being taught in the 11th grade what I had been taught in the 9th grade.

Yet the blame-everybody-else philosophy is so deeply ingrained that a PTA leader in the Bronx said, "It's the parents' fault" that New York City's 8th graders are doing so badly. "They don't spend enough time working with their children and helping them."

Back when I went to school, it was virtually impossible for parents of kids in Harlem to be helping their 8th graders with their school work. Most of those kids came from homes like mine, where no one had gone beyond elementary school. Yet we learned.

I don't know whether we had multiple intelligences. But we certainly did not have the multiple stupidities that dominate our public schools today.

From the days of John Dewey on to the present, educational gurus have produced an unending succession of vague, slippery and piously lofty writings -- all leading off on a tangent from the hard job of teaching basic skills. Seldom has this flood of words even acknowledged, much less addressed, the central fact that school teachers and administrators are drawn disproportionately from the dregs of the college-educated population.

The ultimate question, however, is not why these people defend themselves by all means necessary. The big question is why we continue to take them seriously, when their track record is so bad. Are we that easily impressed by goddledygook or intimidated by airs of "expertise"?

What are they experts at? Failure, excuses for failure and evasions of the very concept of failure.

Of all the frauds which pervade the public schools, none is more hypocritical -- or more destructive -- than the pretense that they are trying to avoid the unfairness of subjecting disadvantaged children to standards and tests that they are not equipped to handle.

What makes these people think that life will be any easier for the disadvantaged to handle? Certainly not when they are sent out into the world educationally unprepared and full of "self-esteem" that is going to have a brutal head-on collision with reality.


JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.

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