Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2002 / 10 Shevat, 5762

Thomas Sowell

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The education bill -- THE compromise education bill just passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush provided some good political theater and even a little humor, with the president embracing Ted Kennedy. But what did it do for American education?

Not much. The new legislation spends more money, but our educational system already has the most expensive incompetence in the world. Our students are regularly outdone on international tests by students in countries that spend less than half of what we spend per pupil.

Yet this education bill may have been the best that President Bush could have gotten, given how evenly matched the opposing political forces are. But the net result is that our schools remain institutions whose over-riding purpose is providing iron-clad job security to members of the teachers' unions, regardless of how well or how badly they teach.

However, the president has established a principle on a small scale, which can expand later when the political climate permits. That principle is that all students must be tested every year, with consequences if substandard schools fail to improve. In the current bill, these consequences are too mild to make much difference, but the principle has been established.

Giving all children standardized tests and reporting the results to their parents is a fundamental break with the philosophy and practice of the educational establishment. Nor have the teachers' unions been slow to realize what a threat this can be to them in the long run. They have spent a lot of time and money denigrating standardized tests as distractions from "real" education.

But how real is an education that leaves American children consistently falling below international standards?

Most people have no idea what a closed circle of dogmas dominates American education, with facts unable to break through. To our "educators," the test of an idea or practice is not whether it produces results, but whether it fits the prevailing vision.

Educators gush about the latest theories of how to teach math but remain unconcerned when American students continue to finish near or at the bottom on international math tests. In short, theory has triumphed over facts in the education establishment.

When teachers receive awards for outstanding teaching, the basis for these awards is seldom that their students actually show more knowledge or understanding of the subjects taught. The usual basis is that the teacher being rewarded exemplified what teachers are supposed to do, according to the prevailing dogmas.

"By their fruits ye shall know them" was said thousands of years ago. But today it is by their adherence to dogmas that they are judged.

Typical of the current mindset was a recent article in the education section of The New York Times, advising parents on how to judge a school. After proclaiming that test scores are "overrated," the article advised parents to look for bulletin boards in the halls and principals who drop in on classes to listen, among other things. But evidence that any of these things actually has led to concrete results was wholly lacking. Nor was there the slightest indication that hard evidence about results was relevant.

Much of what is considered to be good teaching these days could more accurately be called good student public relations. But students may be enthusiastic about a teacher who has in fact left them ill-informed and with a complete misconception of the subject being taught. Glib and charismatic pied pipers in the classroom may be defined as "good teachers" by the education establishment. But ultimately the students will be forced to confront the real world.

That is when what they do and don't know will matter, to them and to the country. But by then it can be too late. There is a reason why we are importing so many foreigners in difficult and demanding fields, such as engineering and math, where less than half the Ph.D.s awarded in American universities go to Americans.

What the testing requirements can do is alert parents and the voting public to reality before it is too late. That is why tests are so much resented by educators who want to stay securely within their closed circle of dogmas, where they can carry on "exciting" activities, instead of educating the next generation.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.


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© 2002, Creators Syndicate