- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2001

In no field is there more discussion of reform — and less real activity — than in education.

By this time, virtually everyone is aware that the dumbing down of America is proceeding at a strong, steady pace. Half of our Ph.D.s in computer and engineering are granted to foreign students, and of the remainder a large portion are recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia. In the 1998 mathematical international contest, our high-school seniors placed 19th out of 21 nations. In reading, almost 40 percent of our third graders are not literate.
Changing all this became a cornerstone of President Bush's campaign for election and has taken much of his time to date. What has it all accomplished? And what can we expect it to accomplish?
First, a $45 billion Department of Education budget for 2002, a rise of almost 12 percent.
And what else? Frankly, nothing.
President Bush's original plan was strong. It required national tests to measure every child in major subjects, if the children failed, the schools would eventually be punished by providing private education, or "vouchers" for the youngsters. Now, in a "compromise" with Sen. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, the voucher program is dead and the tests are no longer necessarily national. Students needn't take the rigorous NAEP, the National Assessment of Education Progress, one of the federal aid to education programs that has any real value. Instead states can substitute their own tests, generally those that are self-serving and considerably more lax.
But all of this controversy and compromise misses the real "dirty secret" of educational reform — the intellectual and academic inferiority of the teacher corps. The Democrats refuse to discuss this because the National Education Association is one of its main supporters, and some 10 percent of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention were NEA members. The Republicans refuse to discuss it because millions of voters have a sister, wife, husband, daughter, son or other relative who is a teacher.
It's OK to bash "education" as a whole, but it is not OK to bash teacher selection and training. However, in the last SAT tests, high school youngsters who said they intended to become teachers scored a total of 964 in the SATs, while the average student, including minorities, scored 1019. The odds are that the typical student, especially in the suburbs, has a higher SAT score than his or her teachers.
In Pennsylvania, the education secretary has declared that the average high-school graduate entering any of the 91 teacher-ed programs in the state had a C-plus average, putting them in the bottom third of their high-school class. Most other teacher's colleges now masquerade as "universities" but with the same low admissions requirements and inferior curriculum. Most of these high-school grads studying to be teachers could not get into a mediocre liberal arts college.
The current selection and training methods are designed to enable the new teachers to be "certified" by the state, an underwhelming achievement. One major test for teacher certification, the Praxis I, used in 36 states, can easily be passed by the typical 15-year-old. (I took it and laughed.)
One last frightening statistic: the Graduate Record Exam tests college grads anxious to get into one of eight professions. Educators score at the very bottom.
But meanwhile, the teacher crunch has forced many states, including Texas, California and New Jersey, to hire ordinary college grads with no certification or "education" background. The result? Administrators of these "alternate" programs believe these untrained teachers are superior in intelligence, have better grades from better colleges, and are equal or better in performance to regular teachers.
What about the present federal aid to education? the largest program, Title I for underprivileged children, has been operating since the 1960s, and presently costs us $9 billion a year. Yet the Education Department itself, in its report "Prospects," states that is has been of little or no value over all these years.
If Washington wants to help with a Bush-inspired education bill, it can best do it in the two steps designed to imitate the usually superior European system for the selection and training of teachers.
(1) Close all the undergraduate schools of education where academically weak high-school graduates study to become teachers (A step we took with medical students in 1910 after the Flexner-Carnegie report.)
(2) Make teacher training entirely a one-year postgraduate course for superior graduates of liberal arts colleges where they study a true subject rather than "education," and do some practice teaching. The federal government can best spend its money on scholarships for college graduates who majored in biology, or math, or literature and who now decide they want to teach elementary and high school.
Only by uplifting the caliber of those who become teachers can we improve the education of our children. All the rest is just more federal money down the anti-academic drain.

Martin L. Gross is the author of "The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools." published by Harper Collins.

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