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Our Schools Be Broke

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A friend of mine went to his first day on the job at the United States Department of Education and was chagrined to see a sign on the door warning, “The door be broke.” That sign is emblematic of what’s wrong with education in America: our schools be broke!

Public schools are failing too many of the nation’s children by not preparing them to meet even the most basic standards for being well educated. The cause of this deficiency is not a lack of money devoted to the task. In 2006, America spent $599 billion, or 7.4 percent of the GDP, to educate the nation’s children (about $10,800 per child in public and private elementary and secondary schools). Yet, the unavoidable fact is that despite a 33 percent increase in spending per student in constant dollars since 1990 and a 10 percent decrease in the number of students per teacher, student achievement has, at best, remained essentially the same.

What happened in our nation’s schools when two decades ago America’s children were among the best in test results? A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development stated American children now place 24th in math behind such diverse nations as Canada, Germany, France, Korea, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. Just how difficult is the testing by which this ranking was established? What follows is a fourth grade mathematics test question used by The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement:

Al wanted to find how much his cat weighed. He weighed himself and noted that the scale read 57 kg. He then stepped back on the scale holding his cat and found that it read 62 kg. What was the weight of the cat in kilograms?

Only 60 percent of American students received full credit on their answers, which tied them with the Slovak Republic for the rank of 24th. The students from eleven countries had correct answers of 80 percent or better.

A 2006 Fordham Foundation report summarized the nation’s education situation in a press release: “Half of American states ‘miss the bus’ on vital education goals.” The report found that only eight states had achieved what they called “even moderate success” over the past fifteen years in improving poor and minority students’ scores on reading, mathematics, and science. Fordham officials noted that non-needy white students scored a “not-so-shabby B” on the same rating scales. What is their conclusion? “Tough-minded education reforms tend to get results. Strong curricular content, real accountability and expanded parental choice can help raise the achievement of our neediest students.”

The 1983 publication, A Nation at Risk, informed the nation that our children are not learning enough in school, and our schools are not effective enough in educating our children. Subsequently, high schools have instituted school reforms emphasizing increased academic rigor. As a result, in 2004 more than half of high school graduates have taken an advanced science course; over one-third, an honors-level English course; and over one-third, a foreign language course. In spite of this improvement in rigor, the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for high school graduates show no improvement since the early 1980s.

A Nation Accountable: Twenty-Five Years after a Nation at Risk, a report issued in April 2008 in an attempt to evaluate the changes in education, summed up the outcome of their efforts. “The [National Commission on Excellence in Education] was disturbed by the easy courses and ‘curricular smorgasbord’ available to high school students. Unfortunately, this has not changed greatly. Both easy courses and this smorgasbord still remain, with diluted content now hiding behind inflated course names.”

School districts are trying numerous ways to address the problems in the nation’s schools. One successful attempt to provide quality education is Charter Schools — publicly funded schools that run like private schools with accountability and performance standards. More and more education and policy experts are recommending school choice as a way to improve the education of the nation’s children. While rare just decades ago, millions of parents today can benefit from public policies that allow them to choose their children’s schools.

At some point, we will have to come to grips with the fact that a very large percentage of our students fail because of their home environment. They lack a father and mother who value, encourage, support, and reinforce their efforts to learn. Research and common sense agree: a married-couple, father-mother family is the very best home structure for children’s well-being and success in school and in life. For children to succeed somebody has to believe in them and expect the best from them. Good parenting provides the foundation for learning before children even begin their formal schooling.

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