- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

Americans love education, even bad education. And that's exactly what we have. In fact,

judging from international competitions, America has the worst elementary and secondary (K-12) education system in the civilized world.

In the Third International exam in math for high schoolers, American students scored 19th out of 21 nations, beating out only Cyprus and South Africa. Only 1 in 5 American high school seniors have studied trigonometry, physics or geography, subjects routinely taught in other advanced nations. Nor do American youngsters know their own history. The majority of high school seniors have never heard of Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry or the Marshall Plan. Nor can they find Southeast Asia or the Mediterranean Sea on an unmarked map.

On the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) exams, 38 percent of fourth graders demonstrated that they cannot read properly.

(Then how come we have such excellent hi-tech? Foreign students, of course.)

The solution to our educational dilemma? To Washington, it is always more federal aid to education. The vehicle? Naturally, the Education Department, which does not educate a single child, but whose budget continues to soar.

In 2000, under President Clinton himself a big spender on education the department's budget was $38.5 billion.

Republicans have traditionally been skeptical and have even advocated abolishing the Education Department. But that skepticism has apparently vanished as President Bush made education his No. 1 priority. The party eventually realized that just mouthing the word "education" was worth millions of votes.

The result has been an enormous increase in federal spending on education. In 2001, Mr. Bush's first year, the department's cost rose to $43.5 billion. This year it will reach $53.5 billion, an increase of some 23 percent. The total federal aid to education, from all agencies, is now an astronomical $112 billion a year.

The core of Mr. Bush's expansion is the new legislation, HR 1, euphemistically called "Leave No Child Behind" act, one he is expected to sign into law this week. Within that bill is a centerpiece program called Title 1, which dates back to 1965 and is designed to help disadvantaged, mainly minority, schoolchildren catch up with others. A noble effort.

The cost of Title 1 also continues to soar, now reaching some $11 billion a year, or many scores of billions since it began more than 35 years ago.

Has the money been well spent? Has it worked? Not at all. Title l, like most other federal aid to education programs (except school lunches run by Agriculture) has been a colossal failure.

Who says so? The Education Department says so.

"Our study of Title 1 performance shows that over the years, it has not reduced the gap that exists between minority students and others," said a Title 1 official when interviewed. That pessimistic view is echoed in a final Title 1 evaluation report, "Prospects," which states: Over the school year, the initial gap between their learning and that of nonparticipants did not change."

The present form of federal aid uses dollars to encourage states to improve through various mechanisms. Unfortunately, that is not the answer to better education. The states have no intention of fixing the present system one based on inferior teacher selection, inferior training, and weak curriculum. The leading educators principals, district superintendents and state education commissioners came up through the present anti-academic system of low standards, and they like it just the way it is. Even their top graduate degree, Ed.D., or Doctor of Education, held by most district superintendents, is not a true doctoral program like the Ph.D.

The reality is that the great majority of our 1,300 teacher training schools, unlike the liberal arts and science colleges, take in virtually any student with a high school diploma. They then give them an education no better than that of our two-year community colleges. And unlike those schools, the curriculum is weak on "content" and heavy on highly debatable psychological theories.

Just as university teachers were generally superior students, so public school teachers are usually the most ignorant of high school graduates, coming from the bottom third of their classes. The Educational Testing Service SAT scores show that those who intend to teach school score 50 points lower than the average student.

But what about those who actually go into teaching? A study by Pennsylvania of teacher trainees in their 91 colleges showed that the typical future teacher graduated high school with a C-plus average, far below that of the average student. On the Graduate Record Exam, which test students entering eight major professions, educators score the lowest, by far.

If the federal government really wants to help, it must drop the present approach and finance the adoption of the European system. That generally involves closing all undergraduate schools of education, where poorly prepared 18-year-olds go directly into teacher training. Instead, we must create a postgraduate system, somewhat like law and medicine, which chooses superior liberal arts college graduates to participate in a one-year postgraduate training program to learn how to teach what they have already learned. In Germany, for example, teachers do not generally study education as undergraduates, but must first graduate a regular college with good grades before entering teacher training.

But we don't pay enough to get superior students, we are told. That was true, but it is no longer the case. The average teacher salary is some $42,000 nationally, and includes long vacations and enormous benefits and retirement. And several states, including Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, pay well more than $50,000 on average.

So either federal aid to education will remain what it is an expensive political sop to voters but without real value or become a program to elevate the shockingly low standards of American public education. The money is already there and waiting.

But I guarantee you that it will not be accomplished by HR 1, no matter how well-meaning it may be.

Martin L. Gross, a nationally syndicated columnist, has won the National Education Association's School Bell Award and served as adjunct associate professor of social science at New York University.

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