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Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2001 / 16 Shevat, 5761

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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The education paradox -- WE HAVE heard it before. A newly elected president comes to Washington proclaiming it time to fix public education and asserting his desire to become the "education president." Now it is George Bush who has the chance to follow through on his commitment to "bipartisan education reform" that will "leave no child behind." This resonates with an American public that sees a good education, in a meritocratic society, as virtually a public right that defines America's sense of fair play and opportunity in the 21st century.

But we run straight away into a paradox. Most of us say the modern economy demands that schools do better, but many believe they are doing worse. Yet two thirds of Americans say their own neighborhood schools are superior to the nation's schools. Why? Because so many of our excellent public schools are now producing outstanding students. Just attend any gathering of high school students who receive award certificates from the Society for Academic Achievement, and you, too, will share this conclusion.

So what is wrong? For a start, we expect more from our schools, not just to provide basic learning skills but also to integrate a heterogeneous population and to prepare people for the information-based economy. To compensate for the fact that both parents work in many families, it is left to teachers to inculcate self-discipline and even a sense of right and wrong.

Failing the poor. Obviously not all of these goals can be achieved by government action. The real area for concern is this: While public schools may succeed for children in middle-class communities, they too often fail children in poor neighborhoods. Minority children have generally narrowed the gap in academic achievement with whites, but in comparisons based on international testing, the scores of American white students in math and science were exceeded by only three other nations out of 38, while black American children were in last place, and Hispanic children were beaten by all but two nations.

President Bush has now proposed giving states more flexibility in spending federal money by consolidating 60 federal programs into five block grants. In return, he demands rigorous evaluation of student performance, through testing in reading and math every year from third to eighth grade. His purpose is to identify successful programs, channel direct assistance to the schools that need it the most, and use rewards and sanctions to motivate children, teachers, principals, and superintendents.

He wants to help schools improve teaching through better training, and to employ new certification programs to promote math and science teaching. Only 41 percent of our math teachers have math degrees compared with 71 percent in other countries. This is critical in the face of a looming shortfall of trained teachers.

Finally, he seeks to increase competition to public schools, partly with other public institutions such as charter schools, but ultimately through vouchers that would enable dissatisfied low-income parents to send their children to private schools. This is vehemently opposed by many Democrats and, according to recent exit polls, by a majority of Americans. They are concerned that allowing money to go into the private education system would undermine public education and funding. Wisely, Bush and Vice President Cheney have remained open to alternative solutions.

It is prudent not to expect too much from any programs. Educational achievement springs not simply from the quality of schooling but also from a child's family and community. For example, children from low-income households enter school with as little as one fourth the vocabulary of middle-class students. Here is another staggering fact: There is not a single example in the country of a poverty-stricken, urban school district performing to a high standard.

Parents matter. Teachers matter. Incentives and sanctions matter–and providing resources matters. Some argue that money doesn't seem to correlate very well with educational success. One New Jersey judge responded to this fact as follows: "If money is inadequate to improve education, the residents of poor districts should at least have an equal opportunity to be disappointed by its failure."

President Bush's program, supported as it is by centrist Democrats led by Sen. Joe Lieberman, is a promising step forward on a long twisting road.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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01/03/01: Quipping in the new year
12/20/00: A time for healing
11/13/00: The need for legitimacy
10/30/00: Arafat's bloody cynicism
10/18/00: Arafat torches peace
10/03/00: A great step backward
09/08/00: The Perfect Storm
08/29/00: Don't blow the surplus
08/15/00: Voting for grown-ups
08/01/00: Arafat's lack of nerve
07/17/00: Can there be a new peace between old enemies? Or will new enemies regress to an old state of war?
07/11/00: A time to celebrate
06/19/00: A bit of straight talk
06/08/00: Using hate against Israel
05/26/00: Is the Federal Reserve trigger-happy?
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04/13/00: A paranoid power
03/10/00: Fuel prices in the red zone
02/25/00: Web wake-up call
02/18/00: Back to the future
01/21/00: Whistling while we work
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12/23/99: The times of our lives
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10/05/99: India at center stage
09/21/99: Along with good cops, we need a better probation system
09/08/99: Though plundered and confused, Russia can solve its problems
08/31/99: The military should spend more on forces and less on facilities
08/05/99: Squandering the surplus
07/06/99: More than ever, America's unique promise is a reality
06/24/99: The time has come to hit the brakes on affirmative action
06/15/99: America should take pride in honoring its responsibilities
06/02/99: The Middle Kingdom shows its antagonistic side
05/11/99: Technology's transforming power is giving a lift to everything
05/04/99: The big game gets bigger
04/30/99: On Kosovo, Russia talked loudly and carried a small stick
04/21/99: No time to go wobbly
04/13/99: The Evil of two lessers

© 2000, Mortimer Zuckerman