Suzanne Fields

Unintended consequence No. 1: Each state gets to set its own standards and score its own tests. Consequently, states adjust criteria to their advantage, which often camouflages failure. Wisconsin, for example, sets its passing reading level in the eighth grade at the 14th percentile, considerably more difficult to achieve than the scoring in South Carolina, where it's set at the 71st percentile. "A youngster moving from middle school in Milwaukee to high school in Charleston would be grievously unprepared for what lies ahead," says Mr. Finn. What do the candidates in the South Carolina primary say about that? You might as well not ask.

Unintended consequence No. 2: Mindful of the importance of math in the global economy, states typically set higher standards for math than for reading. (The young can always get their learning from watching television.)

It shouldn't surprise us, but it should certainly scare us, that children and their parents are reading less than ever, surrendering without a fight to a culture where the media, racing for the bottom, is not only the message but the only message. It's amusing to have to ask the kids to show us how to "text message" on our cell phones, but the short-speak they use stunts their vocabularies beyond teenage slang. Insisting that they learn to read, to use real words, would deepen their understanding of the real world.

"Geek-speak" in our post-literate, post-Gutenberg age makes reading real literature difficult; the classical and Biblical references, base-line standards for understanding historical culture and plumbing the wisdom in the humanities, makes the treasures of the ages difficult to retrieve. (Even Google can't do it.) The global economy will be a field for failure, where only low wages and unemployment thrive. One-third of American teenagers who drop out of school are already stuck with not-so-great expectations.

In polls on the major issues in this campaign, education doesn't make the top 10. We're hearing a mantra for "change," but the rhetoric is empty. "Change" to what? For all the big talk, there's nothing to suggest how to pull our public schools out of the quicksand of institutionalized selfish interests. It's time to change that, too. From what we've heard so far, fat chance.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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