Thomas Sowell

Two apparently unrelated stories that appeared in newspapers on the same day are in reality not nearly as unrelated as they might seem. One story appeared under the headline, "High School Students Debate Steroid Ethics." The other story had the headline: "Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens Are Among Worst at Math."

We have known for a long time that teenagers in Japan scored much higher on international math tests than American teenagers do. But did you know that teenagers in Poland, the Slovak Republic, Iceland, Canada, and Korea -- among other places -- also score higher than our teenagers?   Out of 29 countries whose teenagers took a recent international math test, American teenagers ranked 24th. Americans also scored near the bottom on tests of general problem-solving.

What about the ethics of using steroids? Kids can talk about this at home or on the streets or just about anywhere. What about the ethics of using up precious school time for such chatter when there are serious deficiencies in our children's ability to measure up to international standards in an increasingly competitive international economy? Presiding over classroom chatter is no doubt a lot easier than teaching the Pythagorean theorem or differential calculus. But teachers who indulge themselves like this, at the expense of their students' future, have no business conducting discussions of "ethics" about athletes using steroids -- or any other ethics issue. Jason Giambi may have done some damage to his own career, and to George Steinbrenner's pocketbook, by taking steroids. But that is nothing compared to the damage done to schoolchildren whose time is frittered away talking about it when there is serious work that remains undone.

With all the outcry about the "outsourcing" of American jobs, especially in computer work, there has been relatively little said about the importing of brains from foreign countries to do mentally challenging work here because the brains of our own students have simply not been adequately developed in our schools. For years, most of the Ph.D.s awarded by American universities in mathematics and engineering have gone to foreigners. We have the finest graduate schools in the world -- so fine that our own American students have trouble getting admitted in fields that require highly trained minds.

A finer breakdown of American teenagers' test scores shows that while white and Asian American students meet international standards in math, blacks and Hispanics fall well below those standards. Those students who are already less fortunate have the most to lose by turning classrooms into chatter sessions. The children of affluent and well-educated parents can learn a lot at home, even if the schools waste their time on "activities" and "projects." But the kid from a low-income family in the ghetto or barrio usually has just one shot at a decent life -- and that shot is in the school. Teachers who fail to equip these youngsters with mental skills send them out into the battles of life unarmed.

Teachers who think they are doing something good for those kids by sympathetically dwelling on racial grievances are giving them chips to carry on their shoulders instead of brainpower in their heads. Is anybody going to be more employable with a chip on his shoulders? Is anybody more likely to be work hard on improving himself when he is led to believe that his problems are caused by other people? The message that gets through to many minority youngsters is that you are a chump for trying when The Man is not going to let you get anywhere anyway. Those minority students who still try hard are often accused of "acting white" -- and that accusation can bring anything from social ostracism to outright violence.

Schools that give easy grades are setting their students up for a very hard life without the skills to compete. Instead of giving students and their parents a realistic picture of where they are, while there is still time to do something about it, schools are passing the job of confronting reality on to employers who get these youngsters when it is usually too late. Yet schools think they are teaching "ethics" when their whole abdication of adult responsibility is profoundly immoral.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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