A forensic look at the parts and players operating in the public schools is needed to determine what must be done to improve our students' performance. Society as a whole must be minimally acceptably educated for a democracy to function effectively in the United States.
Many articles have been written expressing concern about our taxpayer-funded schools. (In The Washington Times: "Lessons learned," by a former education secretary; "Education renewal," by Cal Thomas; and "Hog-slopping," by Deborah Simmons.)
Perhaps a structural modification or redesign of method and operation are in order. The objective of public school education should be to produce the best educated students within the constraints of the students' mental capacity. It is necessary to identify the spectrum of intelligence (or mental capacity) of the student body. A good approach is to use the normal distribution (bell curve) of student intelligence.
This distribution of cognitive ability should be used as the standard for establishing academic course difficulty. It is a fair assumption that bracketing the IQ between 90 and 110 would allow setting near-optimum public school course difficulty. Many falling below 90 would struggle. Those at the high end of the spectrum will find course matter well within their capability.
The 90 to 110 bracket probably allows the maximum number of students to pass tougher course material than the present lower standards that may pass more students but with lower academic worth. And those lower standards reflect poorly on the American students' performance in world competition with other industrialized countries.
Even though one might assume that cognitive ability is the total determining factor for the expected performance of student achievement, the problem is more complicated. One has to look at another dynamic that may be described as the migration phenomenon: the ability of a student sitting in a lower cognitive ability grouping through drive and desire to outperform a less-interested student who is superior in ability. The seemingly slower students should not be lost to prejudgment by teachers and school staff in the early years of school.
The further to the left under the normal distribution curve a student falls, the more difficult to migrate significantly to a higher achievement. Sometimes the higher-IQ-endowed are susceptible to underachieving because of disinterest in school academics or peripheral problems of one sort or another. But at least they possess the intellectual tools to achieve — it's well within their grasp. A case could be made that there is a second chance for these gifted students later in life. But it will be more difficult.
In conclusion: The subject matter should be taught at a sufficiently difficult level to be within the grasp of the student in the center section of the normal distribution curve of cognitive ability where about 50 percent of the students lie.
A good teacher — not necessarily an outstanding teacher — is a must for acceptable academic performance of students. In general, we might have to go a long way in insisting on minimal competence of many teachers.
According to the "U.S. Education Department National Center for Education Statistics," the percentage of teachers who never earned any degree in the subject they teach is for math, 18 percent; English, 14 percent; science, 12 percent; social studies, 11 percent. A couple of years ago in Massachusetts, 60 percent of newly graduated teachers failed the 11th grade reading comprehension test.
Teachers' pay to attract highly qualified teachers should be of less concern. Based on a printout of teachers' salary in Anne Arundel County, Md., a married couple of teachers can make over a million dollars in 10 years: $45,000 annually each after eight years of experience. And salaries increase each year.
As for classroom discipline, the teachers' position is that parents are to blame for students' lack of civility and manners. This presents a dichotomy of thought. After all, who taught these parents a decade or so earlier? There is perhaps a shared source for the problem. An atmosphere of civility in the classroom is conducive to learning and discipline is absolutely necessary. If these conditions do not exist, blame the teachers and ultimately the hierarchy. The bottom line is that teachers and staff act in loco parentis. Instilling discipline in teenagers is not difficult. The military does an excellent job.
Math and English are extremely important. They provide the basis for learning other courses. Students should be well grounded in these subjects by the end of elementary school or the state of public school performance will not improve.
Time and money will be saved if schools do not clutter up the school day with such subject matter as Parenting, Race Relations, Sex Education (could be covered in Health classes), Environmental Issues and Sexual Orientation, etc. After all, shouldn't a child's education in these issues be provided by parents, religious entities and other family orientated entities?
Superintendents, department heads, principals, et al. — the architects and managers of the entire school system — institute and enforce the rules and regulations to carry out the overall daily operation; develop standards and testing procedures; hire and fire personnel including teachers; oversee instructions and act as parents to protect the children during school activities. How are they doing? Presently the public high school graduate has acquired an education below his inherent mental capacity.
Deputy Director, Office of Networks and Communicatioins (retired), United States Information Agency.