The Price of Procrastination

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Feb 21, 2006 11:44 AM

Thomas Sowell slaps the wrist of the education system for allowing its students to avoid confronting reality out of a misplaced concern for "fairness." A California attorney has filed suit to prevent the state from requiring students to pass a test of basic English and math skills before they can graduate. A passing grade is 55 percent.

Are these tests "fair"? Of course not. Life itself is not "fair" in the sense of offering equal chances of succeeding in any kind of endeavor.

It is hard even to imagine how life could conceivably be "fair" in the sense of equal chances of doing specific things, when there are so many factors at work differently for each person.

Different families and different cultures produce different habits, different values, different behavior patterns. They don't even want the same things to the same degree, much less have a willingness to sacrifice to the same extent to get those things.

The only kind of fairness we can hope for is applying the same rules and the same standards to everyone.

I saw this happen to kids when I was growing up, all the time. It didn't do Anthony any good that our teacher passed him out of 4th grade even though he didn't learn anything, did it? He just went to 5th grade and 6th grade and 7th grade without learning what he should have. And, 8th through 12th became even more insurmountable than they were before he was passed out of 4th grade, all so he wouldn't feel left behind.

Sowell was not treated with that kind of "fairness," and he's glad of it:

It certainly wasn't fair, in Mr. Gonzalez's sense of the word, for the schools I attended as a child to require me to take the same tests as children from families with more than twice as much education and several times as much income.

What would have happened if the schools had been "fair" to me in that sense? I would have learned less, had a much easier time in school -- and would have gone out into the world not even knowing enough to realize how little I knew.

By now, I might have been on welfare or in prison. But my teachers would have felt good about themselves for giving a poor boy from the ghetto a break.

This is my problem with the education system, and most federal social programs. Their proponents don't seem to care much that they are unsuccessful as long as we are spending exorbitant amounts of money on them, making us feel as if we are doing something. But feeling as if we're fixing a problem is about as effective as Anthony feeling like he's not left behind. The feeling does not solve the problem.

Many government programs, unfortunately, actively work to NOT be evaluated or hide their results, so they can keep spending the same exorbitant amounts of money on getting very few results, with impunity. In this instance, the California education system has avoided the graduation test requirement despite the fact that the law requiring it passed in 1999.

This is taxpayer money we're spending. In all education and social programs, we have to measure results and try to spend money wisely in order to be stewards of both taxpayers and the people the programs are meant to serve.

There is no virtue in spending money unwisely. We're cheating everyone that way. People tell me all the time we just need to invest more money in education. If you even suggest that "spending more money" is not the only laudable objective with relation to the kiddies, you are deemed heartless.

But, take Tech High in Atlanta. It's a charter school, established by the local conservative think tank--the Georgia Public Policy Foundation-- and its story is a great one. It gets some public funding and raises private funding to educate a couple hundred students, 70 percent of whom are on free and reduced lunch, and many of whom are transfers from under-performing inner-city Atlanta schools. Tech High last year spent $6,500 per student to Atlanta Public Schools' $9,000 (story on pg. 24 of the pdf. Sorry). Did Tech High give its students short shrift? Let's look at the results.

Tech High outperformed every high school in the Atlanta Public Schools system in End of Course Tests in both Geometry and Algebra I. In the Ninth-Grade Literature test, Tech High scores exceeded those of all other APS high schools except one, Grady High School.

What makes this achievement so remarkable is that of Tech High’s entering ninth-graders, just 10 percent had achieved the overall standard in eighth-grade math in the New Standards Reference Exam administered in the fall. And 27 percent had achieved the overall standard in reading for the end of eighth grade.

Less money and better results. Sounds like something I'd be willing to hawk on late-night QVC. Spending less money and getting better results is a virtue. It is the best way to serve everyone involved. It's not easy, but it can be done. People tend to lose sight of that, especially in Washington. It's all about keeping all the money you possibly can for your pet program. Unfortunately, avoiding the reporting of results (or lack thereof) is the way to do that.

Hence, we spend more money and get fewer results. Call me heartless, but that's not serving anyone.