The first daughter rides to the rescue of fourth graders. That's good news, because they need all the help they can get. Jenna Bush can dress Texas-style in cowboy boots, belts and buckles, but it's what's under her Stetson that will make the difference.
Jenna wants to teach at a school in the nation's capital. He's pleased that she wants to be a teacher, the president told me the other night at a Christmas reception at the White House, but if he knows which school Jenna has chosen, he isn't letting on. Among her available choices is a charter school where 90 percent of the children are from low-income families.
Coinciding with news of Jenna's career ambitions, which like everything else about a First Family is big news in Washington, is a new study that shows how American fourth and eighth graders lag far behind their peers in other countries. This suggests that we're not preparing the next generation to compete in fields where major technological advances are made. Neither the president nor anyone else is pleased about that.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, undertaken every four years, found that fourth- and eighth-grade students in Singapore scored highest in math and science. When compared with their grade peers in 45 countries, American eighth graders stand 15th in math and ninth in science; in another survey of 25 nations, our fourth graders stand 12th in math and sixth in science. It's nothing short of disgrace.
Despite all the talk about education and the importance of leaving no child behind, lots of kids are left behind. Even more troubling, another study evaluating how American students apply what they know shows our 15-year-olds lagging behind counterparts in other industrialized countries. This measurement of problem-solving ability is independent of math and science proficiency, but is obviously affected by those disciplines.
The Program for International Student Assessment found that American 15-year olds have trouble working out complex problems requiring creativity, competency and understanding, an ability to analyze and troubleshoot. We take pride in our excellent graduate schools and advanced technology, but we're not educating our children in the subjects that will get them to those graduate schools. Many of the highest scorers will do challenging work, but great numbers at the bottom won't. Blacks and Hispanics do not do as well in math, science and reading as children in other racial and ethnic groups.
"U.S. dominance in technology, science and business has largely been carried out on the shoulders of the generation of workers who went to high school when the Beatles were still together," observes the Wall Street Journal. "With an ever high percentage of the workforce expected to be employed in knowledge-based industries, school reform is a question of economic survival."
The Beatles generation understood harmonies and subtleties in music, but kids raised on the bang-bang of heavy metal and the jive rhythms of rap often don't. The boomers rebelled against authority while co-opting the values they fought against. They grew up after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, setting off a national hysteria that goaded them into an appreciation of math and science.
When they grew up they wanted to succeed in business, understanding that living well really is the best revenge. They rejected the morality of their parents but were eager to enjoy the material fruits of what used to be called the prevailing Protestant ethic. That required discipline in a culture increasingly dependent on information and innovation in communications.
What's terrifying in these new educational studies is the way that "we, the people" are cheating the generations following us, not giving them the skills to succeed. American universities bring in bright graduate students in math and science from other countries, even though many of them often can't speak much English.
"Many of our high schools are already world class. However, too many graduate students are ill-prepared to succeed in higher education or the workforce," says Rod Paige, outgoing secretary of education. The results of the studies "are a blinking warning light." If education were located in the Department of Homeland Security, that blinking light would be orange.
We need better teachers, better schools and the discipline that breeds motivation. If Jenna Bush reflects the ambition of her generation, leading more of our best and brightest into teaching, that will be all to the good for our fourth and eighth graders - and for the rest of us. Let's hope.