- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

Two apparently unrelated stories that ran in newspapers the same day are in reality not nearly as unrelated as they might seem. One story was headlined, “High school students debate steroid ethics.” The other story: “Economic time bomb: U.S. teens are among worst at math.”

We have long known teenagers in Japan scored much higher on international math tests than American teenagers. But did you know teenagers in Poland, the Slovak Republic, Iceland, Canada and Korea — among other places — also score higher than our teenagers? Out of 29 countries whose teenagers took a recent international math test, American teenagers ranked 24th. Americans also scored near the bottom on tests of general problem-solving.

What about the ethics of using steroids? Kids can talk about this at home or on the streets or just about anywhere. What about the ethics of using up precious school time for such chatter when there are serious deficiencies in our children’s ability to measure up to international standards in an increasingly competitive international economy?

Presiding over classroom chatter is no doubt a lot easier than teaching the Pythagorean theorem or differential calculus. But teachers who so indulge themselves, at their students’ future expense, have no business conducting discussions of “ethics” about athletes using steroids — or any other ethics issue.

Jason Giambi may have damaged his own career, and George Steinbrenner’s pocketbook, by taking steroids. But that is nothing compared to the damage done to schoolchildren whose time is frittered away talking about athletes’ steroid use when there is serious work that remains undone.

With all the outcry about “outsourcing” American jobs, especially in computer work, there has been relatively little said about importing brains from foreign countries to do mentally challenging work here because the brains of our own students have simply not been adequately developed in our schools.

For years, most of the Ph.D.s awarded by American universities in mathematics and engineering have gone to foreigners. We have the world’s finest graduate schools — so fine our own American students have trouble getting admitted in fields that require highly trained minds.

A finer breakdown of American teenagers’ test scores shows that while white and Asian American students meet international standards in math, blacks and Hispanics fall well below those standards. Those students who are already less fortunate have the most to lose by turning classrooms into chatter sessions.

The children of affluent and well-educated parents can learn a lot at home, even if the schools waste their time on “activities” and “projects.” But the kid from a low-income family in the ghetto or barrio usually has just one shot at a decent life — and that shot is in the school.

Teachers who fail to equip these youngsters with mental skills send them out into the battles of life unarmed. Teachers who think they are doing something good for those kids by sympathetically dwelling on racial grievances give them chips to carry on their shoulders instead of brainpower in their heads.

Will anybody be more employable with a chip on his shoulders? Is anybody more likely to be work hard on improving himself when he is led to believe his problems are caused by others?

The message that gets through to many minority youngsters is you are a chump for trying when The Man will not let you get anywhere anyway. Those minority students who still try hard are often accused of “acting white” — and that accusation can bring anything from social ostracism to outright violence.

Schools that give easy grades are setting their students up for a very hard life without the skills to compete. Instead of giving students and their parents a realistic picture of where they are, while there is time to do something about it, schools pass the job of confronting reality on to employers who get these youngsters when it is usually too late. Yet schools think they are teaching “ethics” when their whole abdication of adult responsibility is profoundly immoral.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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