There is no wolf, no crisis facing our schools

In a forward to Mitt Romney’s education “White Paper” Jeb Bush writes:

There is no more critical issue facing the United States than the need for education reform. Despite spending more on public education than virtually every other nation, our students’ math and science achievement lags well behind that of their peers abroad. One in four American students fails to graduate from high school within four years of entering, and far too many of those who do graduate are ill-prepared for the demands of college and careers. Once the world’s leader in the postsecondary degree completion, we now rank in the middle of the pack among industrialized countries. Many American students suffer due to inadequate schooling, but the shortcomings of the American education system are most devastating for minorities and the poor. Our ability to meet these challenges will determine not only the success of our economy, but our very future as a democracy.

In respect to what he designates as the “critical issue” facing the United States there have been those saying much the same thing since the country’s beginnings. More recently we have been inundated by the cries of “Wolf at the door,” but unlike in the children’s story we go on believing that the wolf is there no matter how many times we see it’s not true.

There was A Nation at Risk in 1983 during Reagan’s presidency. Then there was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and then just this month the Council on Foreign Relations report on U.S. Education Reform and National SecurityWhy is it that we seem to always be living with presumed school failure putting our country at risk and creating an urgent need to reform our schools?

It is a fact not often and not enough recognized that our educational desires for our children do not correspond to how we as adults live. We go on telling our children, while holding them in school, that certain things are all important, such as reading, writing, the knowledge of history and science etc., and that these things require their full attention or else, but in the way we live we show that for us such things have little or no importance.

How many of us read the great books? take part in one of our species’ great conversations, write? do math and problem solving for enjoyment? share our thoughts and feelings with others? We would have the children do these things in school while we do…what? If there is a critical issue in need of our attention it’s rather that we begin to reform ourselves, and you know how little chance there is of that happening.

In regard to Jeb Bush’s statement that “our students’ math and science achievement lags well behind that of their peers abroad,” I’d ask him, who are these “our students?” He has to be speaking of an average student, an average achievement, the average of the test scores, say, of all our 14 year olds taken together. And just how important is that number? Countries with higher average test scores just don’t have our heterogeneous population, that in itself being, in fact, and in so many ways, hardly a weakness, one of our great strengths.

In any case our country’s growth rate and per capita living standard do not depend on the average test scores of its students in the schools. Rather, if our country still leads the world in regard to so many economic and other wealth indicators, and in fact it does, it’s because “our students,” at least a significant number of them, are extraordinary achievers, and in so many respects, not just test scores, lead their peers from elsewhere.

Moving on I would attribute what Bush calls the shameful high school dropout and low college graduation rates much more to the mistaken efforts by our politicians including Jeb himself, his father and brother, and countless others of our so-called educational leaders, — I would attribute it to their continued insistence that college be within everyone’s reach. Whereas in fact, if it’s a quality education, a real liberal arts education, it’s simply not within everyone’s reach, at least while of school age. (That’s probably why so many of our wisest men speak of life-long learning.)

Furthermore only a relatively small percentage of the available jobs in the country even need anything higher than an 8th. grade education level, certainly not four years of college. Training may very well be needed and appropriate, but not a four year college. Too bad that Bush, Obama, Romney  et al. don’t speak of vocational education, that of which we may be in desperate need.

If there is a critical issue in the paragraph I quote from Jeb Bush it’s that the American school system is devastating for large numbers of our poor and disadvantaged school children, many if not most of these being racial and ethnic minorities living in our inner cities.

He’s right about that. And yes we do need to address this issue, but probably not in the ways that Bush, and earlier brother Bush along with Ted Kennedy, and now Mitt Romney, as well as President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan are suggesting.

We need to address the lives of kids outside of school, where their “real” education is going on. We need to establish and maintain contact with the kids, their families and neighborhoods, with where they are living and actually learning without us. What goes on in school is much less important.

In fact, whatever we might do to them in the schools, in the mistaken idea that the country is at risk because of them, be it to establish common standards, hold their teachers responsible, subject the kids themselves to more and more testing, none of this will change things significantly, undo their up until now failure to learn. The kids themselves will have to realize, sooner or later, that their learning, their positive growth in school and out will depend first and most of all on themselves. Perhaps we can help them with that. Perhaps we can’t. We haven’t really tried.

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