Now I Know My ABC's

Posted: May 22, 2001 12:00 AM
God bless Bill O'Reilly. Really. Yes, yes, he's an entertainer (a good one), and there are times when he engages in confrontation because it makes good theater (on television? How shocking!), but he is practically the only voice in the mainstream media to make a stink about the latest statistics on education reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Sixty-three percent of black fourth-graders are illiterate. Someone besides O'Reilly ought to be pounding the table over this remarkable and frightening statistic. The figures for the rest of America's children are also grim. Thirty-seven percent of fourth-graders overall scored "below basic" in reading proficiency (i.e., illiterate), as did 58 percent of Hispanics. Only 40 percent of whites, 46 percent of Asian-Americans, 12 percent of African-Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics were found to be "proficient" in reading. We are getting soft and stupid as a nation. What's the latest craze sweeping suburban schools? Parents are up in arms about standardized testing. They don't think their little ones should be subjected to pressure of this kind, and they fret that one test on one day doesn't prove anything anyway, and that parents "know" when their children are doing poorly. In Massachusetts, some parents keep their children home on testing day. Baloney. When only a minority of our fourth-graders can read competently, there must be millions of parents out there who either don't know or don't care that their kids are performing poorly. If they really don't know, testing will help them. (Millions of inner-city parents have applied for vouchers to send their kids to private schools when offered the opportunity.) And standardized tests do make a difference in school performance. The four states that achieved the greatest gains on the NAEP -- Texas, North Carolina, Connecticut and Kentucky -- all make use of rigorous testing. Well, sniff the opponents of accountability, this causes teachers to "teach to the test." OK. If the test measures basic literacy and numeracy, what's wrong with that? Years before there was even an Education Department in Washington, states were managing to teach children to read. In fact, if you've ever attempted to pass the eighth-grade final from rural Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century, when most kids rode horses to school, you might find it challenging (I couldn't have done the math). We are simply getting soft and stupid. Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, chock full of money for this and that program to improve the performance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It all sounded very high-minded. If you opposed the bill, you were accused of being anti-education. (Even President Bush has fallen into the money equals caring trap, reassuring the nation in his address to Congress that because education is a priority, it must get more money.) Well, over the past 25 years we've spent $125 billion on so-called Title One; $80 billion within the past decade -- a fraction of overall spending on education -- and guess what? It has bought us nothing. Scores have not improved one iota. Sen. Edward Kennedy, speaking for all liberal Democrats, warned recently that "we cannot reform our schools on the cheap." What a joke. For the past three decades, we've done nothing but shovel more and more money into the schools at every level, and what do we have to show for it? Sixty percent of poor and black children cannot even read by the fourth grade. What sort of life can they expect in this digital age? Bush has shown a capacity for leadership on this issue in Texas (one of the few states where reading scores for black and Hispanic students are up). But he must use the bully pulpit to teach the country the lessons of the NAEP report. For many years, we have treated our children's education as fair game for fads, games and window dressing. We've demanded less accountability from our schools than from our local dry cleaner. The current state of education in America is a scandal and requires thoroughgoing reform.