The dummy knows his stuff

Mona Charen

1/26/2001 12:00:00 AM - Mona Charen
President George Bush wasted no time in demonstrating that he ran for president to do something, not just to be something. Stepping gingerly around the trash left behind by the Clintonistas (no joke -- both The Washington Post and the Drudge Report have reported vandalism of government property by Clinton's departing White House staff), Bush moved swiftly to introduce an education reform package. It's a shame that Bush is such a dummy, because his approach to education reform happens to track almost perfectly with that of the most respected experts in the field. Like them, he has identified the key paradigm shift that will be necessary to achieve anything in education reform -- moving from an emphasis on inputs to an emphasis on output. In other words, for 35 years we've been attempting to cure our education woes by pouring more and more money into the schools under different titles. We've spent billions, only to see scores remain shockingly low. Suburban Americans whose children attend cheerful, carpeted, technologically up-to-date schools with computers and television studios would do well to shake off their complacency. The schools crisis is not just about the inner cities. An international comparison of 12th-grade students (the Third International Math and Science Study in 1998) found that Americans placed 19th out of 21 nations in math and 16th in science. And the Asian nations -- the world's math and science whiz kids -- did not even participate in the test. More humbling than those data was the fact that our best students, the advanced placement kids, performed even worse, scoring dead last in physics, for example. Many Americans have assumed that our thriving economy (or the economy we enjoyed until recently) gave the lie to talk of failing schools. They must be comfortable with one-third of the students at the University of California enrolling in remedial classes; with employers spending an estimated $50 billion annually for worker training (and not for complex tasks, but simple reading and math); and with Silicon Valley relying on a steady stream of well-educated foreigners to keep its plants going (45 percent of PhDs in the hard sciences earned here go to non-resident aliens). Alan Greenspan, among many others, has expressed the view that it is only a matter of time before the economy is affected by our lamentable schools. Even assuming we could somehow maintain our economic might in the absence of reform, there are other reasons to get serious. The gap between minority and majority educational performance keeps some segments of American society more or less permanently poor -- an unworthy situation for a great nation. And even among the non-poor, ignorance is in the saddle. Two out of three 17-year-olds do not understand the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. Fewer than half of America's high-school seniors recognize Patrick Henry's rallying cry "Give me liberty or give me death." We are in danger of losing our patrimony. Without an educated citizenry -- educated in the fundamentals of American democracy and world history, as well as in the basics -- it is doubtful that we will remain worthy of our rich heritage. As "A Nation Still At Risk," the manifesto of an education-reform coalition including Floyd Flake, E.D. Hirsch, Chester E. Finn Jr., Bill Bennett, and Jeanne Allen among others, put it, "Are we to be land of Jefferson and Lincoln or the land of Beavis and Butthead?" The Bush proposal does not presume that Washington, D.C., can tell jurisdictions around the nation how best to educate their young. But it does propose to keep track of whether they are doing so or not. And Bush does propose to emphasize the basics -- reading and math. Under his plan, children in grades 3 to 8 would be tested every year in those subjects. If a school fails to educate the children in its care for three straight years, education dollars will be given to parents, instead. Bush said, "When children or teen-agers go to school afraid of being threatened or attacked or worse, our society must make it clear it's the ultimate betrayal of adult responsibility." Until last week, we hadn't had an adult in the White House for eight years. Let's see how much can be accomplished now that grown-ups are back in charge.