School daze

Posted: Sep 10, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When we were sending our four children to grade school, our major concerns were ensuring they learned what they needed to know and didn't lose their lunch boxes, book bags or mittens in the process. These days, parents have to worry about their youngsters learning anything of value while risking the loss of their lives, their virginity or both. If you're wondering how "education" got to be such a mess for the current crop of kids -- the next generation of leaders -- just check with the National Education Association (NEA). And be prepared for an education. The NEA purports to represent 2.6 million people who are working "to help all students achieve." Exactly what our students are to achieve is in doubt, so I went to the organization's website. There, I found a program labeled "Back to School Kit 2001," which I thought would contain resources for parents wanting to help a child learn math or improve their reading skills. I expected to find a "recommended reading list" for different age groups; tips for hiring a tutor; guidance for tracking a child's progress; or perhaps educational tools that no home should be without -- maybe even suggestions for making homework fun. I found none of that. Nothing was in the NEA's "Back to School Kit 2001" that would enhance Junior's report card or empower parents in educating their children. Instead, this so-called "Back to School Kit" included several political screeds from NEA bureaucrats dispensing tired liberal views on public policy. What the "Back to School Kit" lacks in guidance for parents, it makes up for in sheer partisan politics. It includes, among other things, a dissertation by NEA President Bob Chase, taking aim at America's governors for using tests as a graduation requirement. True, Chase devotes a few lines to chastising school "bullies" and, in fairness, the "Kit" contains a list of safety statistics -- meaningless as a prescription for improving the sorry state of America's public schools, however. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the most prominent issues delineated weren't about children or education, but were, instead, two emotional polemics about the need for more teachers and higher pay. Certainly, the nation needs qualified and motivated teachers. Nobody debates that. Yes, we need safe schools, but we also need schools where students learn and teachers are motivated, led and encouraged to teach what children need to know: how to read, write, compute and deduce. But if its website is any indication, that's not the NEA's focus. "Education" should mean a better ability to speak and read foreign languages, and a better understanding of geography, science and history. But for the NEA, "education" seems to be more about teachers and budgets than students and books. Education Secretary Rod Paige said as much when he addressed the National Press Club this week: "While there are excellent schools across America, our system is failing too many children. Nearly 70 percent of inner-city and rural fourth-graders can't read at a basic level. There is a persistent achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers. Reading scores have been flat for the past eight years. "The numbers show us that what we're doing is not working. ... The skills and knowledge of our children are not getting better. ... Our children do not need adults who measure success in dollars. ... Our children don't need adults who make excuses for their failures. Our children need adults who focus on results. Our children deserve to learn, promptly and well, and anything that distracts from their learning is a distraction from schools' mission." Amen. Yet if the NEA's own 2000-2001 Resolutions, adopted at its most recent convention in Los Angeles, are any indication, the organization is all about distractions. In a mere 40,667 words, outlining the NEA's beliefs and priorities, the union proudly proclaims its interests: mentioning "math" and "science" six times; "reading" seven times and "geography" not at all. Yet, "sex" is mentioned 56 times; "compensation" 32 times; "discrimination" warrants 26 mentions; and "HIV/AIDs" and "victim" appear 12 times each. "History" warranted a dozen entries, but "American history" didn't even rate an honorable mention. Is it any wonder that so many Americans hold public education in such low esteem? America's teachers deserve better than to be represented by the NEA. And America's schoolchildren deserve better than what politicians offer. In the days ahead, Congress will try to reconcile how much money the federal government will throw at "Education Reform." But money won't solve the problem. As former Education Secretary Bill Bennett points out in his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, "Per pupil expenditures between 1960 and 1999 nearly tripled, while the average SAT score in the same period dropped 56 points." When I was young, my dad told me to get a good education, because, once you've got that, "it is something that can never be taken away." True enough. But today's students, can't count on something they've never received. And with the NEA in the way, they never will.
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