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Gambling with our nation's future
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Forsyth County News
It seems like an unassailable “truism” to state that the future of any nation depends upon its children and that the ability of those children to shape their own future will be a function, substantially, of their education. But children are not in a position to shape their educational environment. That environment is created by the generations of their parents and grandparents. How well are we are addressing that responsibility -- particularly in the public school systems?

How important is the public school system? The Council for American Private Education reports that approximately 11 percent of enrolled students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade are in private schools (80 percent are in parochial schools, of which slightly more than half are Catholic and 20 percent attend non-sectarian institutions). Additionally, the National Household Education Survey Program estimates that approximately 3 percent are being home schooled. So more than 85 percent of our young people (and a large part of our nation’s future) depends on the public school system.

Let’s take a few snapshots relating to that public school system. These certainly are not characteristic of the thinking of all jurisdictions but, unfortunately, illustrations of this nature are replicated many times around the nation. Clearly, some public schools excel, but there are too many, particularly in the inner cities, where drop out rates exceed 50 percent, where teachers are disheartened, and where basic learning is not taking place for many who attend. I will not mention the states, but many readers will probably recognize these illustrations easily.

Almost everyone recognizes high drop-out rates as a problem. One state has come up with a solution which is under serious consideration: provide accelerated courses and a series of exams so students can graduate after their sophomore year. That should cut the drop out rate substantially. Think about the concept! In fact, if one could extend the concept to the 6th grade, the drop-out rate would virtually disappear! Sorry for being facetious, but there doesn’t seem to be any recognition of the fact that learning, maturation, and experience must go hand in hand. And clearly, schools have not demonstrated that they have the ability to deliver content adequately in the present time frame, let alone in an accelerated mode -- nor have they shown that they can measure “learning” in a meaningful manner.
No-Child-Left-Behind was a well intentioned effort. Schools and teachers would be held accountable. However, once again, our inability to devise meaningful measures led to a series of tests that threatened the schools very existence (translate that into budget in many cases) and led to teaching to the tests. This is not “learning.”

Years ago, another state introduced a competency test for public school teachers. The test was aimed at 11th grade-level knowledge. When administered, a large percentage of the teachers failed – enough so that the ability to staff schools for the following school year was in serious jeopardy. The solution -- simple. They lowered the passing grade. So much for teacher competency and a desire to upgrade the system.

There are substantial problems in most jurisdictions relating to teacher competency. In some cases the school systems do not provide the resources and training that teachers need to be current, and policies do not motivate teachers to innovate. In others, fights over job security and tenure are devoid of considerations relating to effective educational processes. Yet most every adult can probably think of a dedicated teacher who had a major impact on his or her life. We need to find ways to create environments that encourage teachers to teach and students to learn.
In another worldly move, one state legislature banned the introduction of International Baccalaureate programs -- programs that set extremely high standards for students all over the world. The reasoning, as stated by one of the legislative leaders: “why should we teach our children about inferior systems, when ours is the best in the world.” This kind of thinking is the path to decline and obscurity.

Based upon uniform exams, our children do poorly against there rest of the world in math, science and basic reading skills. These are critically important if this nation is to maintain a leadership position in developing new ideas which, in turn, lead to new jobs and a strong economy. A 2006 study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, covering the 30 most industrialized nations of the world showed that US 15 year-olds ranked 17th in science and 24th in math. Whereas reading skills are hard to compare, a US government study a few years ago showed that two-thirds of American children are below grade level in reading ability.

One rough measure is the number of days spent in school. A study in 2003 by Trends in International Science and Mathematics Study showed the US at 180, below the average of 193 for the countries included and well behind China (225), Japan (223) and Korea (221). Students in China and Japan received 2 additional hours of daily instruction, vs. less than 1 hour in the US.

As we deal with severe economic pressures, it is easy to postpone the things that are not immediate -- particularly for those of us who no longer have children in school. But education is a long-term process. It takes effort -- by the schools, by parents and by everyone involved in the political process. We need to find better ways to turn the current trends. On a more practical level, we need to be able to maintain our edge and compete in a world that is growing ever more competitive. It’s like steering a big ship -- it cannot turn fast. So the need to take action is imperative. National standards would be a major step forward. Too often Federal programs and State proclivities conspire to take the easy path and end up sacrificing the future for false pride, economic expediency and easy targets. The future of our nation is not just in the hands of our children. It is in the hands of those who are making decisions about the type and intensity of the education that those children receive.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at