- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

The news from the schoolhouse is running from bad to worse. First, the bad news: American high school students trail teenagers from 14 European and Asian countries in reading, math and science. We’re even trailing France.

It gets worse: The collapse of standards has plunged many of our public schools further into depths of “know-nothingness.” And it’s not a matter of money.

On average the high school student in the United States ranks 14th, behind Britain, France, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and Japan, among other nations, according to “Education at a Glance 2003,” a report compiled for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Before your eyes glaze over, you should follow your money.

“Countries that spend more are countries that tend to do better,” says Barry McGraw, education director for the 30-nation OECD. But that’s not true in the United States. We spend $20,358 for each student in public schools and college, up to three times more than other countries.

In a separate study, the Manhattan Institute, drawing on U.S. Department of Education statistics, finds that of the 70 percent of all students who graduate from American public high schools, only 32 percent qualify for college. Of the 51 percent of blacks who graduate only 20 percent qualify for college; of the 51 percent of Hispanics who graduate, a mere 16 percent qualify for college. Asians score highest by both measurements.

“The main reasons these groups are underrepresented in college admissions is not insufficient student loans or inadequate affirmative action,” researchers found, “but the failure of public high schools to prepare these students for college.”

There are, of course, many reasons why so many students can’t qualify for college. Most of them never get the cultural support to overcome the general debasement of public education. Nobody knows this better than the teachers, which is why so many public-school teachers send their kids to private schools.

The deterioration of public school education is most prominently observed in social studies, where, as education scholar Chester E. Finn, Jr. observes, “the lunatics have taken over the asylum.” The attitudes of elite educationists have reduced education to ideology, and a venomous ideology it is: America’s contribution to humanity is an odious conspiracy of dead white males. The pedagogues worry that attentiveness to the details of democracy might cause children to discover that the ideology is false, that democracy actually is the best way mankind has found to organize a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

J. Martin Rochester, a professor of social studies at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, in an essay in the book “Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong,” turns up the heat on those responsible for dumbing down education and collapsing discipline. “Co-operative learning” is the euphemism for reducing learning to something only the least among us can master, something like making it up to a crippled child by breaking the legs of everyone else. “Co-operative learning” draws on the free labor of smarter students to bring up low achievers, which reduces average learning abilities for everybody. “Constructivism,” the theory that children can “construct” their own meaning from personal experience, is pushed on youngsters who can’t construct a proper sentence.

“Multiple intelligences theory” searches for “the specific genius” within each child, equating the skill of slam-dunking a basketball, for example, with the ability to perform open-heart surgery. The reliance on fun-filled, action-packed, visual media over fact-filled textbooks and lectures treats whole classes as though suffering attention deficit disorder.

Textbooks, such as they are, make matters worse. They not only give the visual equal space with the words, but lack authority, and we pretend that uninformed students can think critically, with informed judgments, when they have no stored knowledge.

One textbook directive instructs teachers: “We must stop exhorting students to be ‘good citizens’ according to our own unquestioned view of good and help them instead to ask ‘good questions’ about their own values and those of others. Controversies, rather than fixed knowledge and values, will play a central role in the structure of social studies education.”

This is an education theory from Alice in Wonderland: “Verdict first, trial later.” How can students create “controversy” when they haven’t learned what to criticize?

We might turn around these dismal statistics of deficiencies in math and science; math and science are less infected with the attitudinal diseases of political correctness. But we’re all at risk of catastrophe if we can’t restore reverence for the common culture initiated by the Founding Fathers and traced through changes in our chronological history. A character in a Damon Runyon short story said it plain: Life is tough, and it’s really tough if you’re stupid. Thomas Jefferson said it more elegantly, prescribing “an informed citizenry.” But what did he know?

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