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Monday, April 14, 2008

The Education "Crisis"

Why is it that we insist on treating education like the manifestation of some disease? We talk about "curing" it, or "fixing" it, as if there is something inherently wrong with the entire endeavor. This seems to be the kind of politically motivated tripe that bubbles up from the sewers of Washington D.C. every election cycle. Everybody wants to do something, but nobody will really admit the true nature of the problems, such as they are.

First, there is no crisis. Children in 2008 are, on average, doing much more advanced work, especially in science and mathematics, than their parents were at the same age. At my mother's high school, only one student ever made it to trigonometry class, and he had to go to the local college to take it. By the time I was in high school, it was the standard class for juniors to take. Now, at least in California, sophomores are supposed to be taking it. Such progress does not a crisis make.

Language arts is a bird of a different feather, of course. To be brutally honest, the only difference between performance in the 1960's and today has been the tidal wave of immigration. According to census data, the entire growth of the school-age population during the 1990's was due to immigrants or the children of immigrants. These students take, on average, between two and four years just to assimilate enough to be registered in the same classes as their native peers. Once in these classes, they still require (in general) a slower pace of teaching to absorb the material. I don't blame the kids, by the way. They didn't decide to come here on their own. Moreover, having spent a couple of years in a foreign country, I know just how difficult it can be to become proficient (in speaking, reading, and writing) in a new language. The fact remains, nevertheless, that the presence of a large number of students who are new to English is having an impact on the school system. Considering the magnitude of the problem, I'd say schools are doing a miraculous job of coping, though to state that they've dealt with it successfully would be an overstatement.

Yet, with all of these issues on our plate, we compare our scores with Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and other nations with hardly any immigration (at least compared to ours), and declare ourselves failures. Did I mention that even the math and science tests that we use for comparisons are written in English? The effect of all of this is that a sizable fraction of our children are measured not by what they know, but by how well they can decipher math and science questions in a foreign language.

In addition, we consider every student's score, regardless of handicap or disability, when we tabulate our data. Other countries don't. Japan considers only the scores of its academically-tracked students; the rest, those whose abilities make them more suited for non-academic careers, don't count against them. In fact, most other nations do similarly. We, in our egalitarian zeal, lump in even those students who, in middle school, can barely fill in a bubble (with help) in between having their diapers changed. Sadly, I can only wish I were using hyperbole. Non-English-speakers, even those who arrived in the country less than one year ago, count in our language arts data. Still, our politicians tell us we have failing schools.

Think about your own children. When they bring home math homework, how does it compare to what you were doing at their age? How does the reading material they bring home measure up? Dick and Jane is no longer used; even kindergartners are being exposed to higher-level reading than that (though I still recommend it for preschoolers). If you are a native to this country, your children are likely doing a lot more advanced work than you were at their age. Does this constitute a crisis? Think of that next time you see a news report on our "failing schools." The political and media template is a lie.

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