Our Failing Public Schools

By Hans Zeiger

"All men by nature desire to know," said Aristotle. Either Aristotle was wrong, or public education is failing to awaken the academic desires of American students.

According to a new Manhattan Institute for Policy Research study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, only 32 percent of recent high school graduates were qualified to attend a four-year college. In addition, the report showed that the high school graduation rate remains depressingly low at only 70 percent.

For years, American education experts have been alarmed at the growing inability of public school students and graduates to compete academically with peers in other industrialized democratic countries. As Charles Sykes wrote in his revolutionary 1990s book Dumbing Down our Kids: Why America's Children Feel Good about Themselves

but Can't Read, Write, or Add, "When the very best American students - the top one percent - are measured against the best students of other countries, America's best and brightest finished at the bottom." While Sykes may have exaggerated the problem, it is true that America's students are average at best.

According to the most recent academic comparison study by the Program for International Student Assessment, of students in 32 developed countries, 14 countries score higher than the U.S. in reading, 13 have better results in science, and 17 score above America in mathematics.

It isn't as though American students aren't scoring first places any more. A survey by the Princeton Testing Service shows that American students rank highest amongst industrialized democracies for amount of time spent watching videos in class. And William Moloney, chairman of the Washington, D.C. based Education Leaders Council, an coalition of reform minded political and educational leaders, writes that American students feel better about their math skills that any other country in the free world, while Korean students who feel worst about their math skills outscore everyone else in math.

The characteristics of self-esteem-obsessed, video-watching schools are manifested in the frustrations of America's higher education system.

According to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, more than 40 percent of recent Washington State high school graduates attending community college enrolled in remedial courses to prepare them for college-level work. A public school system that transfers responsibility for learning basic knowledge to higher education isn't giving taxpayers and parents a return for their money. More damaging, the failure of schools to prepare students for their future hurts America economically, socially, and intellectually.

Over the past century, public education has devolved from the classical approach of character plus basics (reading, writing, arithmetic, respect, and responsibility), to skills, to psychological-social engineering.

Today, education "experts" celebrate their revolutionary doctrines of multiculturalism and values clarification. Sadly, the experts have been too preoccupied with experimental education, diversity training, evolution-instruction, and sex education to realize that 68 percent of students are unprepared for college. Last year for example, the Seattle Public Schools required hundreds of middle school students to participate in costly three-day long "Challenge Day" sensitivity seminars at which crying was encouraged and self-esteem was preached. One student called the seminars a "psycho cry-fest."

"More money!" the educrats scream from their offices in state capitols and Washington, D.C., their purse already bursting at the seams with administrative apparatuses and teacher union perks. Yet as long as money for experimental education is viewed as the only answer to failing students, schools will continue to disappoint.

Aristotle was correct: students can learn and in fact want to learn.

According to Moloney, "All children can learn because all children can work. No learning occurs without work, and no work occurs without learning." The problem is that the public schools have minimized the value of work and maximized the tolerance of laziness.

Controversy arose in the 1990s when many school districts decided to abandon traditional report cards for alternative "student-friendly course grading." According to Dr. Dorothy C. Mollise and Dr. Charlotte T. Matthews of the University of Southern Alabama, student-friendly grading is good for GPAs and self-esteem, but it doesn't equate to better academics. Academic accountability is not enhanced when the incentive for students to work hard is destroyed.

The decline of the work ethic and character of students is the most significant plague on America's academic outcome. A 2002 report by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a Los Angeles based non-profit ethics research organization, reveals that "cheating, stealing, and lying by high school students have continued their alarming, decade-long upward spiral." 74 percent of students admit to cheating on an exam in the past year and 63 percent admit to lying to teachers at least twice in the past year.

Students without character have no need for intellect. After all, if there are other ways to make the grade or complete the assignment without actually learning, why not take the shortcuts? Why not cheat, lie, and steal if the teacher says that all morality is relative, that virtue is an oppressive old weapon of Puritans and religious fanatics?

It is a school system managed largely on the rejection of character and academic basics that fails to produce world-class graduates. Maintaining America's position as leader of the free world requires us to restore the work ethic and demand moral and educational excellence in our schools. 

Hans Zeiger is a columnist and conservative activist, president of the Scout Honor Coalition, and a student at Hillsdale College. Contact: hazeiger@hillsdale.edu

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