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Keeping Schools Competitive

Guest Column
Clay Martin

Last year, educators across the country were forced to resort to all sorts of posturing in an attempt to explain the United States’ abysmal ranking in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

With newspapers such as the Boston Herald running headlines like “World Crushes U.S. Kids in Math, Science,” President Clinton declared that there is no excuse for an American educational system that John R. Silber, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, called a “disaster area.”

The study found that American twelfth graders rank fourth from the bottom in overall math and science literacy, beating out only Lithuania, Cyprus and South Africa. U.S. educators have responded with a slew of new programs and theories designed to bring American students up to international standards.

Over the next few years, as American educators try to brace themselves before the next sobering bombshell drops, we will hear of several inane initiatives that will do little besides drain government coffers. Look for proposals calling for bilingual classrooms, tougher grading, no grading, more emphasis on self-esteem, and less emphasis on standards. Everyone will ignore the real problem with education in America, a problem that cannot be fixed with more computers, more teachers and more rhetoric.

The fact is, the American school system has created an environment that encourages laziness and low achievement. In Minnesota, the graduating class of 2002 will be the first class ever required to take more than one math class to graduate. Compare that to countries near the top in advanced mathematics, such as France and Russia, which require students to take higher math subjects, such as calculus.

The United States has turned classrooms into laboratories where educators and developmental psychologists can test the latest educational fads on increasingly ignorant students. But group learning, mainstreaming, and self-esteem-building are not the answers. American students need to be, deserve to be, challenged like their international counterparts. There is no reason that taking calculus in high school should be considered advanced. There is no reason American students shouldn’t be required to take four years of challenging English and science courses. There is no excuse for using a television to baby sit a class. If U.S. teenagers are required by law to attend high school, the system should be required to provide a meaningful education.

American students should be held to higher standards than are provided by the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills -- which educators tout as being so effective -- and similarly vapid academic yardsticks. Countries such as Japan and France, which consistently embarrass the United States in international educational comparisons, have rigorous national standards; there is no reason the United States could not introduce the same system on a state-by-state basis.

Unfortunately, the traditional academic heavyweights are not the only ones beating out the United States. In the Czech Republic, a developing country with only a fraction of the resources the United States has, students scored as high or higher on every section of the international math and science test. Schools without computers and televisions in every classroom, without a campus news station, without a football field and natatorium, have managed to exceed U.S. schools that come with all of these amenities. Few in the Czech Republic feel that school should be a fun place where students can relax and enjoy their classes. Czech schools, rather, feature unforgiving grading systems, the expectation that students memorize formulas and equations, and random oral examinations that require one student to recite information from any one of a number of subjects in front of the class.

The United States is more sophisticated and technologically advanced than any country in history. Americans pioneered land-grant universities and the idea of education for the masses. But somewhere along the way we slipped, somewhere along the way we lost sight of the ideals that made our educational system the best in the world. Americans have become preoccupied with bolstering self-esteem, rallying school spirit and subjecting students to unsubstantiated educational fads.

U.S. schools need to revert to the standards they maintained in the 1950s, or must adopt the standards of the Czech Republic today. The United States needs to stop feeding its students a curriculum of low expectations and standards, designed to enable them to pass the TAAS and other rudimentary standardized tests, so schools can receive designations like “exemplary” or “Blue Ribbon School.” Students should not be given high school diplomas they cannot read; schools should not push students on to the next grade level simply because it would be an emotional and financial burden to retain them.

Clay Martin is a member of the Class of 2002.