Pastor John Piper and others have told the story of 19th-century evangelist D.L. Moody visiting Scotland and opening his talk at a local grade school by asking rhetorically, "What is prayer?" To his amazement, hundreds of children's hands went up.
Moody called on a boy near the front, who promptly stood up and answered, "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of His Spirit, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies." Moody, recognizing that as the answer to question No. 78 in the Westminster Catechism, responded, "Be thankful, son, that you were born in Scotland."
Should our children be thankful that they were born in America? In one sense, of course: Even most of the poor among us are materially, technologically, and medically better off than most people at any time in history anywhere in the world. In a second sense, of course: As Lee Greenwood sang, "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free."
But what else do our children know? Educationally, how do American children compare with their 19th-century Scottish counterparts? The Scots of Moody's time learned that God created the world and them, but American children typically hear a murky story of ascent from the muck. Educrats talk about children developing high self-esteem, but that often turns into a desperate search for crowd-esteem. Neither lasts.
Beyond the lack of education in what's most important—our knowledge of God—slouches a frequent lack of education in what's needed to get a good job. The 10-year-old No Child Left Behind (NCLB) plan was supposed to help children stuck in bad public schools. The bipartisan deal that greased its passage gave liberals what they wanted, a huge increase in dollars from taxpayers. It was supposed to give conservatives a way to demand that schools push their students to become proficient in reading and math.
After a decade, it looks like NCLB proponents snookered conservatives. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledges that 80,000 of the nation's 100,000 public schools could be declared failing this fall—so he wants to dumb down the passing grade. He's like the corrupt teacher who sees 80 percent of his students fail, and gives them C's anyway. Duncan says grades of F will demoralize public-school administrators and teachers, but what about the students who are demoralized now, or will be once they graduate without adequate skills?
Should schoolchildren in Detroit be thankful for their educational opportunities? The National Institute for Literacy estimates that 47 percent of Detroit adults (more than 200,000 individuals) are functionally illiterate. That means difficulty in performing everyday tasks such as locating an intersection on a street map, reading and comprehending a short newspaper article, or calculating total costs on an order form.
According to "Addressing Detroit's Basic Skills Crisis," a paper produced by the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, half of the 200,000 functionally illiterate adults have a high-school diploma or GED. That means they have been lied to, passed from grade to grade or test to test without gaining basic skills. Yes, not one child was left behind—tens of thousands were. And what about those who do well enough to go to college? Tests of basic reading and math are helpful in elementary school, but Michigan State University professor Jerry Weinberger recently complained in City Journal that an emphasis on test-taking among older students has crowded out the study of history, science, literature, and anything that requires creativity. Weinberger said his students link education not to learning how to think but learning how to pass standardized tests.
Throughout its history WORLD has favored educational innovations such as tax credits and vouchers. Particularly and unabashedly, we'd like more children to learn what prayer is, but in general we favor opportunity and diversity over one-size-fits-all approaches. Bill Gates, now the largest private grantmaker in education, recently praised in the Wall Street Journal the "very positive characteristics" of vouchers, but said "the negativity about them" among some groups has kept his foundation from supporting them.
Too bad. The status quo is broken, the NCLB fix hasn't worked, and the alternative proposal we're hearing is: Shovel more dollars into the jaws of failure.