Why is Public
This used to be the image of American public education.
What happened somewhere along the way?
Did our kids get dumber
or was it our system?
By CHUCK McFADDEN
ONCE UPON A TIME, way back when the country was very young, America had a wonderful idea.
Heres what well do, we said. We will provide a free public education to every child in the country. Everyone. All the way through high school.
It was a revolutionary notion. No one had tried it before in quite the way the United States wanted to do it. An education to that level just about everywhere else in the world during the early part of the 19th Century was reserved for the elite. It was very, very good. But it wasnt for everyone. Certainly not the hoi polloi. Why, the idea!
But those crazy Americans persisted. Democracy, everyone deserves a chance, and so on. Sure, it will be expensive, but itll be worth it, because well then have an educated citizenry that will invent wonderful things, and cure diseases, and so on.
And lo and behold, thats what happened. Little Izzie Manckewitz got his education in good old P.S. 108, along with Moe and Sean and Antonio and Suzie Smith. Rich, poor, immigrants, girls and boys--they all went to public schools and emerged knowing how to read, write and compute. They also learned a bit of history about their country, some science, and the lucky ones were even exposed to a little music and art. Everyone got a shot. Unprecedented.
P.S. 108 and its thousands and thousands of counterparts across the country produced an education that resulted in miracles. Take a look at what Izzy, Moe, Sean, Antonio and Suzie managed to accomplish during the 20th Century. Do you think that jet airliners, computers, MRIs, a national highway system, polio vaccines, For Whom the Bell Tolls and four-door sedans that get 32 mpg would have happened without a national system of public education? If youre perchance wondering, the answer is: No, it wouldnt.
But then, maybe a little past midway through the 20th Century, something bad happened. The schools started slipping. Youngsters couldnt write very well any more. They couldnt read, or compute. Teachers seemed to become enamored of one new fad after another. Educational administrators--Educrats in the lexicon of some observers--seemed to multiply. We heard all kinds of theories about why the public schools seemed to be getting worse, and there were lots of arguments, but no one knew for sure.
Were the kids getting dumber? No one who watches a youngster with a computer these days can believe that. (I make that statement confidently despite the younger generations regrettable taste in popular music and clothing.)
To be fair, at the same time we asked the public schools to educate our youngsters, we asked them to feed them lunch, and sometimes breakfast, look after their health needs, counsel them for emotional problems, teach them English if they didnt speak it at home, and make sure that they had self-esteem. Self-esteem meant that no one could be told that they didnt know how to read. Even if they couldnt.
And, since the country grew, the public education system grew. There had to be people to run it. No one argued with that. But even though there were many smart, hardworking, tough administrators, all of a sudden there also seemed to be an amazing number of people running the schools who appeared to have mush for brains.
Im not talking about the Texas high school football coach of a few years back who insisted that his players all have short haircuts because men were meant to dominate women.
No, something more serious is occurring.
Listen to newspaper columnist Arianna Huffington on what happened recently in a California high school.
Two teachers there have, over the past 15 years, compiled an amazing record in building the schools Advanced Placement program into a success.
In 1996, the duo had 70 percent of their students passing the test. During the next five years, they more than tripled the number of students taking the college-level English exam--from 60 to more than 200. Many of the additional students they inspired to achieve were kids without honors backgrounds. Nonetheless, the number of students qualifying for college credit more than doubled, going from 42 to 88.
It was a terrific record in the face of tough obstacles. The two got to be so good at prepping students for taking standardized tests, Huffington reports, that the College Board wanted them to train other teachers in how to do it.
Oh, no, said administrators. The percentage of students passing the exam dropped from the 70 percent in 1996 to only 44 percent in 2001. So we have to remove the two teachers from what they have been doing. Reassign them.
Lets be clear about it. Two teachers get really good at something, they involve more and more students in excellence, change more and more lives for the better, so what do you do? Why, you remove them from the program, of course.
More kids learning? Doesnt matter. More kids getting more out of school? Doesnt matter. Who are you going to put in there whos going to help kids more than these two teachers? Doesnt matter.
As Huffington put it: Maybe they should only allow the class valedictorian to take the test--then theyd have a 100 percent pass rate.
It was a wonderful idea, this business of universal public education. Too bad about what happened to it.
© 2001 by Charles M. McFadden. The cartoons are from IMSI's Master/Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. East, San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
McFadden served as press secretary to Wilson Riles, the late California state schools chief.
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