L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 307, February 20, 2005
Happy 90th Birthday, Dad!
Beneath the Learning Curve
Special to TLE
I don't know whether or not I should admit this, but here goes: I'm a product of the public school system. Of course, public schools not so very many years ago were quite different than the public schools we see today. I can read and write proper English (I can even speak it when I've a mind to do so) because failing in those endeavors meant, well, failing. I can balance my checkbook and make change for a twenty because math teachers didn't allow calculators in classes until we were advanced enough for algebra. And I can find Iraq on a map because my geography teacher wouldn't let any of us move in the direction of the 8th grade until we learned in 7th grade how to read a typical map.
Unfortunately, things have changed since I was a student. One such change that brought the contrast between then and now clearly to mind was a news report that claimed teachers were starting to use purple pens in class. According to the report, "Purple is the New Red." Why? Because teachers consider purple "more friendly" than red, and students think it's "less agressive" even while it still "conveys a feeling of authority in a constructive way."
Personally, I suppose I don't really care whether the D on a student's paper is written in red or purple. The problem is less the ink color, however, than the fact that bad grades or critical comments are rarely given any more. Apparently, student self esteem is more important to teachers than actually teaching the students anything. I suppose they're too busy determining whether or not green or white is the least threatening color for "black" boards.
The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative is intended, at least in part, to address that shortcoming. In essence, NCLB tries to address education shortfalls by mandating that kids pass certain tests before moving on to the next grade. Those tests are supposed to prove a certain level of proficiency in various disciplines. Leave it to the current crop of teachers to find a way to use NCLB to enforce their unwavering focus on self esteem.
A couple of weeks ago, a Rhode Island school decided to cancel its annual spelling bee in the name of NCLB. How? Well, it seems the NCLB mission is to ensure that all children succeed, and if there's just one winner, well, then, all children haven't succeeded, have they? One administrator pointed out that "professional organizations now encourage elementary school children to participate in activities that avoid winners and losers, which is why sports teams have been eliminated for that age group." Fortunately, a massive public outcry against the spelling bee cancellation resulted in a reversal of the decision and an acknowledgement that "these sorts of competitions can be motivational and exciting for students."
Whether it's contests, agendas such as NCLB, or merely a return to a little personal responsibility, it's clear that something has to be done to improve our declining public schools.* You and I can see that, and my bet is that most of you, too, are products of public schooling. But the next generation of public school students isn't nearly, on average, as well educated as we are. Consider:
A recent poll showed that high school students don't consider the First Amendment to be particularly important. In fact, a shocking number of them thought at least some of the guarantees of the First Amendment should be rolled back. Now think about the fact that at least some weak attempt is made to teach the First Amendment in schools. Most textbooks today don't even acknowledge that a Second Amendment exists, and those few that do often refer to it as antiquated.
Intelligent design is being taught in some Pennsylvania classrooms while a Georgia lawmaker has actually proposed legislation to make the teaching of evolution in classrooms there against the law (he suggests that only "facts" be taught, not "theories"). Arizona education officials are dealing with a similar controversy, and the authorities there are (what a surprise) placing some of the blame on NCLB for requiring that states "reassess their science standards." At the root of the argument over creationism vs. evolution in schools is the fact that just over half of Americans believe that humans showed up on planet earth in their present form. The poll offering that appalling statistic goes one better: some two-thirds of Americans think creationism should be taught in science class right alongside evolution. (If you're one of them, you can make up for the lack in your own public education by visiting the Talk Origins FAQ pages which offer a discussion of creationism and evolution in plain, easy-to-understand English.)
American students remain behind in math and science knowledge when they're compared with students in other developed countries. One international study (conducted every three years) shows American math students to place 24th out of 29 countries studied. Another study offers some small hope in that American 8th grade students have improved slightly in math and science scores, but warns that 4th grade scores have remained "stagnant." The same study notes that several other countries "continue to outperform the United States in science and math, fields at the heart of research, innovation and economic competitiveness."
These statistics may seem relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But the implications are exceedingly serious. If people don't consider the First or Second Amendmentsor any of the rest of the Constitutionimportant, they won't be inclined to fight against legislation or other government actions that would curtail them. If evolution isn't taught and understood, our future medical professionals, chemists, cosmologists, and more will be hamstrung by a failure to grasp the most basic tenet of the discipline. If science and math ignorance result in slowed research, innovation, and invention, then the likely adverse effects on our future economy are substantial, and the potential losses to our quality of life incalculable.
Teachers could do better, of course. But they won't because giving students the best possible education isn't at the top of their agenda. In California and New York, parents who do want the best possible education for their kids having been fighting to eliminate bilingual education classes. Rice University reported that immigrant parents fought in California to get their kids out of bilingual classes and into mainstreem schoolrooms. Their fight, however, proved controversial. Why? Probably, as was reported in connection with similar efforts in Colorado, because teachers want to keep control of a lot of federal funding that comes their way earmarked for bilingual education. And so bilingual education continues despite the fact that, as was discovered by Orange County, California officials, "there is no evidence that bilingual education has been the least bit effective, anywhere in the United States, for the last 30 years."
As if a substandard education isn't enough, school administrators are taking advantage of their captive audience to indoctrinate their young charges in ways that are also likely to result in serious consequences to both liberty and lifestyle. Kids are faced regularly with lockdowns and searches in schools where they quickly learn they have virtually no Fourth Amendment or privacy rights. Zero tolerance rules are teaching kids they can't draw or write creatively, but must consider every possible interpretation of their creations before putting pencil to paper. Even the youngest students are admonished for playing in "politically incorrect" ways, and are taught to line up quietly to give their fingerprints to get on a school bus or be served their lunch.
What's the answer? There isn't one. So many different problems will require more than one solution (the first and most obvious answer is to demand accountability from teachers and students; to do that will require shutting down, or at least cutting back, the authority of the NEA). But however complex, the answers must be found, and however painful, they must be applied. If they're not, the problems will grow.
They'll grow up, and they'll graduate. And then the problems won't be those in our schools, but those in our corporations, our service industries, and worst of all, our government. Once they're there, they'll grow even broader. By that time, it will be far too late to do anything but regret that we didn't learn our own lessons more thoroughly when we still had the chance.
* I don't believe that government does many jobs very well, and public schooling is no exception. Private schools whether religious or not, home schooling, and even many charter schools have all proved more efficient in terms of both education and expense. There are also significant issues of both fairness and inefficiencies that must be addressed where the financing of public schooling is concerned. Personally, I believe that public schools should be eliminated all together in favor of better alternatives. That being said, getting rid of public schooling will be no small thing. Until naysayers are convinced, the NEA stripped of its power, and dramatic changes are made, the least we can do is improve the existing system. NCLB is a good thought, but it, too, falls short in its execution thanks largely to a culture of teachers and administrators that has made up its mind it knows best for our children, and what it "knows" at the moment is that knowledge is secondary.