Whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on

There’s new con­cern for schools that still aren’t teach­ing the kids very much

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Suzanne Fields Suzanne Fields is a colum­nist for

The lit­tle red school house, fa­mous in the lore of the early days of the repub­lic, is long gone, but the mem­ory of it is a nos­tal­gic re­minder of how the ed­u­ca­tion of chil­dren was once the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the town. As pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion has grown into ex­ten­sive pub­lic school sys­tems in towns big and small, the school­house is no longer the source of civic pride.

Restor­ing the im­por­tance of the pub­lic schools in towns big and small has be­come a cliche of our pol­i­tics. Ev­ery­one knows that schools are fail­ing large num­bers of chil­dren. Par­ents quail, politi­cians rail, teach­ers’ unions squeal, and noth­ing much changes from elec­tion to elec­tion. There’s a grow­ing ap­petite for shak­ing things up.

The con­cern is not new. A loud alarm was sounded in 1983 with a re­port ti­tled “A Na­tion at Risk,” and Ron­ald Rea­gan held it up at a press con­fer­ence, de­cry­ing the sub­stan­dard per­for­mances of school chil­dren across Amer­ica. “If an un­friendly for­eign power had at­tempted to im­pose on Amer­ica the medi­ocre ed­u­ca­tional per­for­mance that ex­ists to­day,” the re­port con­cluded, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have al­lowed this to hap­pen to our­selves.”

Pres­i­dent Rea­gan wanted to get rid of the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and re­turn ed­u­ca­tion to lo­cal con­trol, but he couldn’t come close to do­ing that. So 33 years later we’ve con­tin­ued “un­think­ing, uni­lat­eral ed­u­ca­tional dis­ar­ma­ment.”

Test scores con­firm grave weak­ness in the schools. This week, for ex­am­ple, a sweep­ing sur­vey of scholas­tic per­for­mance in math­e­mat­ics, science and read­ing among a half-mil­lion 15-year-olds in 70 na­tions re­veals de­clin­ing math scores and stag­nant per­for­mances in science and read­ing of school­child­ren in the United States.

The in­flu­en­tial Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent Assess­ment, or PISA, doc­u­ments our chil­dren’s un­der­per­for­mance, which is es­pe­cially dra­matic when com­pared to their peers in sev­eral Asian na­tions and a few in Europe, too. Don­ald Trump needs to know that keep­ing jobs in Amer­ica isn’t just a cost-ef­fec­tive prob­lem, but an aca­demic one, too.

“We’re los­ing ground — a trou­bling prospect, when in to­day’s knowl­edge-based econ­omy, the best jobs can go any­where in the world,” Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary John B. King Jr. said of the sur­vey. “Stu­dents in Mas­sachusetts, Maryland and Min­nesota aren’t just vy­ing for great jobs along with their neigh­bors or across state lines, they must be com­pet­i­tive with peers in Fin­land, Ger­many and Ja­pan.”

Amer­i­can stu­dents scored be­low the in­ter­na­tional av­er­age in math and merely av­er­age in science and read­ing. Sin­ga­pore topped the list in all three, and the United States fell far be­low Ja­pan and na­tions in East Asia, too. Es­pe­cially trou­bling is the sug­ges­tion of su­per­fi­cial­ity in the teach­ing. High per­form­ers in math ex­hibit an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for rigor, fo­cus and co­her­ence, but stu­dents in the United States have trou­ble af­ter they fin­ish solv­ing “the first layer” of a prob­lem.

“As soon as stu­dents have to go deeper and an­swer the more com­plex part of a prob­lem, they have dif­fi­cul­ties,” says An­dreas Sch­le­icher, di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion and skills for the Paris­based Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment, which co­or­di­nated the test. Amer­i­can stu­dents were be­hind

36 na­tions in math, 18 in science, and 14 in read­ing.

We’re some­times quick to sus­pect so­cioe­co­nomic back­grounds and dig­i­tal abil­i­ties af­fect dis­par­i­ties in read­ing, but re­sults of the test sug­gest that’s not nec­es­sar­ily so. Stu­dents with good read­ing skills, no mat­ter their class or sta­tus, or whether work­ing with pen­cil and pa­per or aba­cus or elec­tronic de­vices, did well. Read­ing skills un­der­lie dig­i­tal lit­er­acy, which ought to be writ­ten in large let­ters on the wall in ev­ery class­room.

One of­fi­cial in Bri­tain, where school im­prove­ment on the PISA tests was a pri­or­ity and still fell short, ob­serves that when the Bea­tles in Eng­land were singing “We Can Work it Out,” Sin­ga­pore — which only be­came an in­de­pen­dent na­tion

in 1965 — has in fact worked it out.

“There’s no failed pol­icy more in need of ur­gent change than our govern­ment-run ed­u­ca­tion mo­nop­oly,” Don­ald Trump said dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign. Now he has nom­i­nated Betsy DeVos as his sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion, who likes char­ter schools and vouch­ers to give par­ents greater choice in their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion. But her ap­proach re­quires a care­ful anal­y­sis of strate­gies, an in­formed pub­lic, in­ter­ested par­ents and a strong push for change. Clearly, cer­tain Asian na­tions are do­ing some­thing many Western coun­tries are not. But tests don’t tell the whole story. Mr. Trump can shake up the ed­u­ca­tion es­tab­lish­ment, which sorely needs it. Jerry Lee Lewis fa­mously sang that there’s “a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.” But it’s go­ing to take more than a lot of shak­ing to ac­tu­ally move our kids to the head of the class.

Trump has nom­i­nated Betsy DeVos as his sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion, who likes char­ter schools and vouch­ers to give par­ents greater choice.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY DONNA GRETHEN

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