- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

The recent National Education Summit made headlines. Forty-five governors and more than 100 business and educational leaders were really steamed about the nation’s high schools. Governors like Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, and Mike Huckabee, Arkansas Republican, took turns calling high schools a “crisis” and a disgrace.

Multibillionaire Bill Gates is outraged high schools steer minority and low-income students away from tough courses that would give them a future in college and rewarding careers. He called today’s high schools “obsolete” — unable to teach kids “what they need to know today.”

Certainly, something is wrong. Our high school graduation rate has decreased every year since its high point of 77.1 percent in 1969. Of every 100 American students, 68 graduate on time from high school, and only 12 earn two- or four-year college degrees.Of 20 leading developed nations, the United States ranks 16th in percentage of high school students graduated and 14th in percentage of college students graduated. Our students’ math and science levels also rank near the bottom.

Dr. Jay P. Greene, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, wrote “High School Graduation Rates in the United States” — a 2002 report commissioned by the Black Alliance for Educational Options. He found 1998 national graduation rates were: overall, 78 percent; blacks, 56 percent; Latinos, 54 percent. States with lowest graduation rates were: overall, 54 percent (Georgia); blacks, 40 percent (Wisconsin); Latinos, 32 percent (Georgia). Cleveland’s graduation rate (28 percent) was the lowest of any major school district. Locally, Fairfax and Montgomery Counties had very high graduation rates. The District of Columbia rate was very low.

Some school districts and states conceal bad news from the public by underreporting dropout rates. In Austin, Texas, mis-reporting of dropout and other accountability statistics was so outrageous the entire district was criminally indicted. Similar deceptions occur nationwide.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put $2.3 billion into educational reform projects, including $1 billion-plus for redesigned high schools that will offer academically rigorous courses “relevant to students’ lives and goals.” This is admirable, and the summit was well-meant, but Mr. Gates and the governors will find high schools cannot be “fixed” this way.

High schools do have problems, but many students arrive there with serious educational deficiencies not readily corrected at that level. Analyses indicate — and teachers tell me — that public school achievement levels are OK through fourth grade, but deteriorate significantly by eighth grade. Until problems in grades 5-8 are seriously addressed, more governors pounding lecterns, crisis-summits, and billionaires shoveling money won’t accomplish diddly.

Years ago I tutored middle school students in math. All struggled with algebra because they couldn’t do fractions — a deficiency due to not mastering multiplication tables.

We spent weeks writing the tables and drilling — something I had done in the fifth grade ” until they could say 9x8=72, etc., without thinking. After that, fractions fell into place, and we restarted algebra. Eventually, I worked my way out of a job with each one. (Obviously, I lacked the true educator’s instinct for keeping the money flowing.)

Those students got a second chance because we repaired a serious flaw in their educational foundation. Millions of others were less fortunate. During my professional career, I saw many young college grads with educational deficiencies in writing, literature, history and math — flaws that often retarded their professional careers.

High schools get a lot of ink but are more symptom than problem. There, deficiencies can no longer be concealed by promoting unqualified students to the next grade. Dropouts’ melancholy judgment is their education has no practical value.

Early in the 20th century, when a high school education meant something, students got a diploma and moved on with life. Only 10 percent of high school students typically went to college.

Since the 1960s, politicians have preached “any student who wants a college education should have one.” We have spent a fortune on that premise. High schools are pushing unprepared students into college. Large numbers fail to finish because they cannot really do college work. Today, about the same fraction of high school students as ever — about 12 percent — actually complete college.

If Mr. Gates and the governors really want to fix public education, they should address lower grades, where it all starts going south. If things are brought around there, maybe the high schools will straighten themselves out. This won’t earn headlines, but it might actually be effective.


Woody Zimmerman is retired from a long career in mathematics, simulation and modeling. His weekly column, “At Large,” runs in the Atlantic Highlands Herald, an Internet newspaper.

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