Jewish World Review April 12, 2001 / 19 Nissan, 5761
The NAEP confirmed that we are continuing to create a nation radically divided along meritocratic class lines. The top level is held by a tiny, hyper-schooled and highly competent overclass to which, in an information-based economy, accrues a vast overproportion of the nation's jobs, wealth, status and power. This class is disproportionately composed of whites and Asian Americans. The second class, numerically broad, is made up of people who are educated enough to work in blue-, pink- and low-to-medium-white-collar jobs that often pay too little to support a family, offer no security and hold little hope of advancement to the upper tiers. The third, also broad, comprises people who are functionally illiterate or close to it, and for whom life holds at best the joyous prospects of bike-messengering, table-busing, weed-pulling, hamburger-flipping and broom-pushing -- episodically relieved by unemployment and descents into deep poverty. Members of this lowest class are disproportionately black or Hispanic.
This dismal result didn't come cheap. As Secretary of Education Roderick R. Paige put it: "After spending $125 billion of Title I money over 25 years, we have virtually nothing to show for it." And as Krista Kafer of the Heritage Foundation has noted, $80 billion of this sum was spent in the past decade, largely in the Clinton years. NAEP is often called "the nation's report card," but it is also the report card for three decades of expensive "education reform." The grade is F.
Overall, at first glance, the results do not look too terrible -- merely a failure to show progress. The "average scores for fourth-graders have shown no improvement over the past eight years," in the words of Gary W. Phillips, acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics. But this assessment hides the real scope of the disaster, which, in societal terms, is close to utter.
NAEP 2000 tested 8,000 fourth-graders across the country for reading skills, and ranked them in two forms, by a numerical scale and in terms of reading "achievement." The four levels of achievement NAEP uses are, in descending order of skill: advanced, proficient, basic and below basic.
Consider, most important, the category called below basic. Students in this group cannot understand even in a general sense the meaning of what they have read: They cannot, for practical purposes, read. Thirty-seven percent of those tested scored below basic. Horrifying enough, but there is far worse news when you break the below-basic group into categories. Sixty-three percent (63 percent!) of black fourth-graders, 58 percent of Hispanics, 47 percent of urban students and 60 percent of poor children scored below basic.
In the numerical rankings, the picture is similar. Forty percent of whites tested at or above proficient (able to understand and draw inferences from a text). The percentage of blacks at or above this level: 12 percent; similarly only 16 percent of Hispanics and 17 percent of American Indians tested at this level.
Meanwhile, "high-performing" students did better -- 32 percent scored at or above proficient and 8 percent at advanced, up from, respectively, 29 percent and 5 percent in 1992. Ambitious parents who send their children to the increasingly demanding schools that serve the meritocratic overclass will not be surprised to learn that this improvement directly corresponded to an increase in reading and homework assignments since 1992.
So this is the 21st century to which Bill Clinton built a bridge, a nation with a growing and entrenched lifelong chasm between those (like Chelsea Clinton) who grow up in ambitious families and attend demanding schools and those who don't have such luck; a nation where a stunning 60 percent of poor children and minority children are shoveled through the schools and out the other end, largely illiterate and innumerate.
It is George Bush's turn. This week he proposed a first budget that includes an 11.5 percent increase in federal spending for education. He is pushing in the Senate a plan that would require student testing in grades three through eight and would allow parents of students in rotten schools to receive federally funded tutoring. This is a mildly promising start, but Bush has not inherited a mild problem. He has inherited a continuing national crisis. If he really believes the great goal of his presidency is to leave no child behind, he must act as if the promise of his presidency, and the fundamental promise of his country, are imperiled. Because, with 37 percent of the children poised to be left behind, they
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