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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What’s wrong with Our Government Education System.

“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” — Mark Twain

This morning I saw a report on FNC’s America’s Newsroom about the state of education in the United States. Martha MacCallum interviewed Eva Moskowitz, an education expert, about the falling test scores in science and mathematics. Moskowitz stated that students in Shanghai, China ranked no.1, Singapore no. 2, Hong Kong, China, no.3 and the United States no. 31. Click here for the video.

The three-yearly OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics. In Canada, 15-year-olds are more than one school year ahead of their US peers in math and more than half a school year ahead in reading and science, said the report released hours after President Barack Obama urged Americans not to rein in education spending, even in a tough economy.

It should be noted here that federal intervention into primary and secondary schools has steadily increased since the 1960s, but there have been no obvious improvement in educational achievement. Indeed, standardized test scores for K-12 students have been stagnant for decades. Interestingly, Canada has virtually no federal involvement in its schools, but Canadian students generally score higher on international tests than do American students. Click here to read my blog post on education spending.

How many reports have seen in the past thirty or so years that have decried the state of government education in the United States? How many times have we been told we need more investment in public education? Why don’t these reports separate private parochial schools and home schooling from these broad statistics? These are questions we need to ask anyone touting these reports and asking for more “investment” in our schools.

The U>S. Department of Education will spend $107 billion dollars on public education in 2011 and the Los Angeles Unified School District will spend $6.5 billion in the same year. This is only a drop in the bucket when you consider every state and city education budget for 2011. It’s an enormous amount of money to spend to attain a 31st ranking in mathematics and a 40%-50% dropout rate in most urban school districts. You can download a PDF file of the LAUSD 2011 budget by clicking here.

Moskowitz states there are two reasons for this malaise in our government education system; parent involvement and poor teachers. She neglected to touch on the elephant in the room — teachers unions.

I agree that parent involvement is critical to a K-12 education. Where there are involved parents there are students who stay in school and do well. When you look at the urban school system you find three generations of single parent families in one family. Most of the parents were dropouts themselves and could not help or inspire their offspring to a quality education even if they wanted to. This is a social problem and cannot be solved by more spending on education. It must be addressed by the so called “leaders” in these communities and putting a halt to the culture of victimology. There must be a desire and a respect for education inculcated in the community.

The problem that can be solved more easily is the one of teachers and their unions. To do this we must put a cap on spending for education at all levels. As long as the money rolls in no solution will be forthcoming. If he LAUSD gets more money this year to cover their projected shortfall, as they did last year, they will no doubt ask for more next year without taking one step to deal with the elephant in the room — teachers and their unions.

Before I go further let me relate a personal story about teachers and what really good ones can do. When I was in high school I was an average student with a high IQ. In other words I did not apply myself to the best of my ability. There are no doubt millions of students who are in the same boat.

After graduation and deciding I wanted to pursue a career in civil engineering and land surveying it became obvious I could not do so without increased knowledge in math and physics. I decided to go to night school to pursue these subjects. In my class in trigonometry I was introduced to probably the greatest teacher I ever studied under – a real Jaime Escalante. She had a PhD in mathematics and held a day job as a mathematician at NASA’s Lewis Flight Propulsion Center in Cleveland, Ohio. She knew math like you know the back of your hand. She could make a sine or cosine very sexy and a tangent look like a playboy bunny. You just wanted to know more about them. When she factored a trigonometric function she would take you all the way back to Pythagoras and his a2 + b2 = c2 formula. You just wanted to know more. At the end of the class she said I was one of the best students she ever had and urged me pursue a career in mathematics. I wanted a career in engineering, not theory and she understood that. I will never forget her inspiration and brilliance, and she was not tenured nor did she belong to a union.

Jaime Escalante was another example of a passionate and great teacher. Escalante’s efforts with students at East Los Angeles’ Garfield High School was dramatized in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver. The film tells the story of Escalante, an unemployed computer engineer taking a group of under achieving inner city high school kids and teaching them AP calculus, Newton’s mathematics. Escalante's students surprised the nation in 1982, when 18 of them passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found the scores suspect and asked 14 of the passing students to take the test again. Twelve agreed to do so (the other two decided they didn't need the credit for college), and all 12 did well enough to have their scores reinstated.

What is not told in the film is that Escalante eventually had to leave his teaching position at Garfield High due to the bureaucracy of the school administration and the jealousy and backbiting from the other teachers. There was also pressure from the union on the school administration to get rid of Escalante as he was making some of their members look bad and he was willing to exceed the union required class size of 35 students. You can read the full story of Jaime Escalante by clicking here.

Today I saw a local news story on striking teachers in the La Habra, California school district. The school district has a $4 million dollar shortfall and the teachers were striking for higher pay and increased benefits. They said they were owed these increases because they had a contract with the district. There they were on the street with their signs chanting “what do we want and when do we want it, more pay and we want it now.” These are the people who war supposed to be role models and mentors to our children and there they were outside of the school acting like spoiled children. Teachers unions are for teachers, not for students. When I was in high school if a teacher went out on strike they would have been shunned by their colleagues. How can you say you are a member of a profession when you belong to a union? Unions are for tradesmen and laborers.

The teachers unions provide tenure and security for underperforming and mediocre teachers. As long as we have plenty of tax payers money, uninvolved parents, teachers unions and children living in dysfunctional families we will never solve the malaise of our government education system. The schools may be good at enforcing regulations, providing lunch, teaching a curriculum of social justice and cultural diversity, but they will continue to fail at reading, math and science.

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