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Jewish World Review Dec. 13,1999 /4 Teves, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Testing integrity

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IF YOU HAVE BEEN appalled by the low test scores of students in our public schools, you should also know that it is not always good news when the test scores go up.

Investigators have charged dozens of teachers and principals in New York City with helping students cheat on tests. This was done in order to make their schools look good --- or at least not as bad as they would have looked with honest test results.

This is just one of many ways in which our academically failing schools are very successful in doing something other than what they are supposed to be doing. They are most successful in serving the interests of "educators" who do not educate.

While American students often come in at or near the bottom on international tests, ours is not the only country that is dumbing down -- or even misleading the public about it. New Zealand's Minister of Education declared: "The fact is that New Zealand has a world-class education system -- other country's envy us."

Let's hope they are not envying this minister's knowledge of English. Nor are New Zealand's test scores in international competition anything to envy, even though they are better than ours.

Like other English-speaking countries, New Zealand uses murky standards for evaluating students and schools, standards "which are capable of a wide range of interpretation," according to Roger Kerr of the New Zealand Business Roundtable.

These are the kinds of "standards" known in America as "outcome-based education" -- with the outcomes being defined in vague pieties, rather than with serious criteria that would distinguish success from failure. The educator's report on New Zealand education "is full of banalities and ducks all the tough issues," says Mr. Kerr. Sound familiar?

Kerr adds that the problem is not with incidental issues in education, but with "the tough but ultimately critical issues, such as how to get rid of poor teachers and attract and retain good one." In other words, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear in New Zealand, any more than you can in the United States.

If you wonder why students from so many Asian countries, even poor ones, do better on international tests than students from affluent English-speaking countries, this is part of the reason.

All is not lost everywhere, or even everywhere in the English-speaking world. Britain's Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, has come out for special programs for gifted children, as well as a policy of throwing disruptive students out, and basing teachers' pay at least in part on performance.

These may seem like modest goals, but they are meeting raucous resistance from the teachers' union and from education gurus. Some are already objecting that "daily homework could harm a child's development" and that "focusing on literacy could curb creativity."

But Blunkett isn't buying it. He says his vision of education has no room for the "ill-disciplined, anything-goes philosophy which did so much damage in the last generation."

It is much too early to know whether Secretary Blunkett will be able to carry out his policies over the opposition of the educational establishment.

However, it is encouraging just to see someone in a position of authority willing to talk sense in plain English about what the real problems are in the trendy education of our times.

It won't be easy. Another government official named Tony Millns, responsible for the curriculum in British classrooms, declared on national radio that students don't need to know exactly where Paris is. "What we are saying," Mr. Millns explained, "is that you only need a certain number of facts before you can move on to interpretation, understanding, hypotheses and the real skills which grow out of geography." In other words, you can wing it and shoot off your mouth -- which is exactly what American schools encourage.

The big problem in the long process of dumbing down the schools -- whether in the United States, Britain, or New Zealand -- is that you can reach a point of no return. How are parents who never received a decent education themselves to recognize that their children are not getting a decent education?

Old codgers like yours truly, who can remember when schools had tough academic standards, even in working-class neighborhoods, are going to pass from the scene and be replaced by people who think our education is so good that "other country's envy us."


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

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©1999, Creators Syndicate