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Jewish World Review May 4, 2001 / 11 Iyar, 5761

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Consumer Reports

Making the grade -- EVERYONE in the campaign made big-time promises about education. So how should we grade the big promisers? President Bush started well. He vowed an immediate bipartisan effort to improve schools, and it was his first legislative proposal. Both parties have now agreed on four measures. Both favor block grants–consolidation of many programs into a big spending program allowing discretionary spending will give states more freedom in deciding how to use federal aid. Both accept that schools may be rewarded or punished according to how well their children do on standardized tests. Both agree to allow students in failing schools to receive private tutoring paid for in federal money, in lieu of giving poor children $1,500 in federal vouchers to attend private schools, and, lastly, both will allow children in poor schools to transfer to better public schools.

So far, so good, right? But the truth is, it isn't far enough or good enough. The White House and Senate Demo- crats are at loggerheads over a critical element: the amount of money the government should spend to improve schools. Democrats want a lot more than the administration is proposing. They're framing the issue in terms of education funding versus an excessive tax cut for the wealthy. President Bush is pinned between his No. 1 domestic program, improving education, and his No. 1 political program, cutting taxes. At least three Republicans support substantial increases in spending for Washington's main remedial education program, Title I. Their purpose is a good and a brave one. They regard our biggest educational challenge as tackling the achievement gap between whites and Asian-Americans on the one hand, and African-Americans, Latinos, and American Indians on the other. The gap between the two groups begins widening as early as second grade, when intellectual foundations are laid. It persists as kids progress through school.

Rich or poor. Minority students fall behind at all socioeconomic levels. Academic achievements of blacks of middle- and upper-middle-income families lag behind those of comparable whites. On some tests, black children from middle-class and wealthier families have done no better than white kids living in poverty. Of greater concern are data suggesting that, at higher family achievement levels, the gap between the performance of black and white students is even wider than at lower levels.

What's going on here? The easy thing is to attack the use of standardized tests, which reveal these gaps. But that's just shooting the messenger. How on Earth can we begin to reward talent and effort without some kind of an objective standard to test the qualifications of the millions of students who apply to our colleges each year?

Of course, the standardized tests can't be the sole criterion for admission. They have to be considered in relation to other indicators of ability and energy. Indicators like a student's record in a variety of academic subjects over a course of time, the character and attitude of the applicant, and his or her record of involvement in nonacademic activities, like volunteer work.

Eliminating the SATs will not make the underlying obstacles in educational achievement disappear. So, clearly, it has to be a priority to address the performance of all these minority kids. If we fail to do that–either by suggesting the tests are prejudiced or implying that minority children are inferior–we will reap a whirlwind, and rightly so. Educational differences will become a progressively larger source of inequality and social conflict. Without the proper credentials, the underperformers will be denied entry into most professions. A bachelor's degree today is almost the minimum credential, and many professions demand much more–even doctoral or postdoctoral degrees. We have a strong moral and practical interest in making sure this doesn't happen.

Concern for social injustice is what drives Democrats on this issue. They're right (but wrong when they impugn testing). What animates Republicans is a sensible caution that money isn't always the answer. They're right, too, but wrong when they regard reasonable criticism of failed programs as the end of the debate about money. The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to academic preparation, our students do not all compete on an equal playing field. What we must do is maximize the commitment to academic performance. The Senate must be flunked if it does not come to a compromise over the amount of funding to support President Bush's program.

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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04/13/99: The Evil of two lessers

© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman