Suzanne Fields
Everyone's looking for a quick fix in education -- President Obama most of all. "Let's make sure none of our children start out the race of life already a step behind," he says. "Let's make it a national priority to give every child access to high quality early education."

Sure, let's. Let's wave a magic wand over every child to get him or her into a prestigious private school, just like the president's own children.

It's not that we shouldn't pay attention to early learning and cheerfully pay for what works. But when the government got into the business of preschools, as it did with Head Start, it manages to bring as little attention as it could to the dismal results. There were no measurable advantages for children in low-income families to advance to the upper grades.

Of course, it's easy to criticize, but it's a grim fact that only in a fantasy can any program raise academic scores for all children. Anyone who saw the documentary "Waiting for Superman" knows that we're more likely to deal with Clark Kent, an unglamorous guy with thick glasses, than with the Man of Steel. Improving the education of our children is always easier in a comic strip.

Lots of anecdotes feed the subject on which educational theories thrive. While we're trapped in a budget crunch and the teachers unions continue to resist performance evaluations and make it difficult to dismiss bad teachers, it's unlikely we'll see substantial changes in the public schools anytime soon. Since we're searching through anecdotes to measure what can help, let me offer a happy story:

An eighth-grader of my acquaintance recently visited me after school, bubbling with enthusiasm about a simple classroom exercise that day. "We learned Greek and Latin roots in humanities class," he said, dropping his backpack on my kitchen floor. "'Path,' for example, deals with suffering, disease or emotion -- pathology, psychopath, pathological. Then there's 'cap' as in captain, capital letter, capitol building and 'phon' for phone, phonic."

He rattled on about roots, prefixes and definitions with an excitement I hadn't seen before. He continued, and I ran for the dictionary (online, naturally) and tracked the sounds as he recited them.

This wasn't excitement after a day at an expensive private school, but from a charter public school. My young friend and his classmates were chosen by lottery. This was public school money put to good and effective use, and I rarely had heard such intoxication with learning before.


Suzanne Fields

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

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