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Jewish World Review Dec. 27,1999 /18 Teves, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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The illusion of education reform

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- DESPITE BRAVE TALK about raising intellectual standards in our public schools and requiring students to pass serious tests before being promoted or graduated, the first disastrous results of these tests have caused the reformers to turn tail and run.

In Virginia, each school was supposed to have at least 70 percent of its students pass the state's exams, in order for the school to retain its accreditation. When only seven (!) percent of the students passed the exams, the requirement was waived.

In Arizona only one-tenth of the high school sophomores passed the new math exam and the state agreed to "reconsider" its requirements. Wisconsin has already withdrawn a test that it was going to require students to pass as a condition of graduation.

In short, the prevailing philosophy seems to be: If the students don't reach the standards, bring the standards down to them. Meanwhile, the education establishment has developed a whole inventory of tactics for responding to critics with excuses, evasions and verbal counter-attacks.

One of these counter-attacks is to demand that the critics solve the schools' problems. "Anybody can criticize," the education establishment says. "But what do you have to offer that is positive? If you know what we should do, then why don't you tell us, instead of just being negative?" In reality, all sorts of critics have already told the "educators" what they should do, for decades on end, and they have not shown the slightest interest in doing it.

Phonics, the 3 R's instead of psychobabble and propaganda courses, parental choice and serious testing of students and teachers have all been suggested -- and all bitterly resisted by "educators," despite their rhetorical pose of being open to new ideas or "constructive criticism." When top scientists offered to create a science curriculum for the high schools of California, free of charge, the offer was rejected by the education establishment.

The real problem with the rhetorical question posed by these "educators" is that they are themselves the most fundamental obstacle to improvement. So long as public school teachers and administrators are drawn primarily from the bottom layers of college students, so long as they have iron-clad tenure, so long as their pay is wholly divorced from performance, and so long as they have a monopoly of the vast majority of students, everything else is just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Telling the existing "educators" how to educate would be an exercise in futility, even if they were honest about wanting to learn. There is no point trying to teach elephants how to fly. If you want flying, you had better get birds.

So long as mindless education courses repel intelligent people from the teaching profession, you are not going to have the caliber of teachers or administrators needed. Second-rate people are not going to produce first-rate education. Endless reforms may come and go, but you are still not going to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, no matter how much you pay for the sow's ear.

When confronted by tons of research, going back for decades, showing the grossly inferior academic performances of those college students who are preparing to go into teaching, the ingenuity of the excuse-makers reaches its height.

The simple, bald-faced lie of denial comes first. Facts are dismissed as "just your opinion." This waves aside hard data from innumerable studies by innumerable scholars which consistently show education students scoring at or near the bottom on a wide variety of mental tests.

Brazen denials are accompanied by denunciations of those who "generalize" about educators. Exceptions are trotted out to show that not "all" teachers have low academic performances -- as if anybody had ever said that "all" people in any occupation were the same. Some teachers even parade their high grade-point averages -- in soft education courses with inflated grades!

Even undeniable evidence of public school students' failures on tests can be evaded by claiming that whatever the students fail is not the "real" goal of education. Multiple criteria allow any specific failure to be brushed aside because there are other things at which the schools can be presumed to succeed -- or better yet, in which success or failure are impossible to define. It is an elaborate shell game.

So long as we keep buying it, they will keep selling it.


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