Sunday, April 08, 2007

Moratorium on Commissions on Education

Time for a Moratorium on Commissions on Education in California
By Peter Schrag

We've had a bumper crop of new education reports from the eminent and powerful of late, all with one basic message: American public schools are lousy and urgently need reform, if not replacement.

One came in December from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which included California State University Chancellor Charles Reed, a couple of former U.S. secretaries of education, a couple of former secretaries of labor, some business executives, as well as other fancy people. It says the whole system is obsolete and should be privatized. The report is available online.

Another, a joint report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the liberal Center for American Progress, concludes that "the measures of our educational shortcomings are stark indeed." In their rating of the states, California gets an F.

Most American fourth- and eighth-graders, they say, "are not proficient in either reading or mathematics. Only about two-thirds of all ninth-graders graduate from high school within four years. And those students who do receive diplomas are too often unprepared for college or the modern workplace." Details of the report are available at

Sound familiar? Prophecies of educational disaster seem to peak at least once every generation. The early 1950s produced books like "Educational Wastelands" and "Why Johnny Can't Read" and articles from Adm. Hyman Rickover, "father of the atomic submarine," that the Soviets were killing us in the education of scientists and engineers.

Those warnings were reinforced when the Russians launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite in October 1957: The education system, it was said, was dangerously flabby; this was a matter of national security. While Russian kids were doing their calculus, Americans were planning the high school dance. Unless the schools (and the kids) shaped up, the Soviets would beat our brains out.

In 1983 came the federal report "A Nation at Risk" with its warning that if we didn't reverse the "rising tide of (educational) mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation," the Germans and Japanese would beat our economic brains out. (When the report was released, President Reagan promised to fix things by working for tuition tax credits, vouchers, voluntary school prayer and the abolition of the Department of Education.)

Now the mis-educated products of those crummy schools of the 1950s and 1980s are sounding the alarm (once again) that if we don't shape up the schools, all the good high-tech jobs will flow to China, India and elsewhere.

"Tough Choices or Tough Times," the report of the Skills Commission isn't quite clear how better training will keep tech jobs from going to places where the same work can be done for as little as one-fifth of U.S. wages. It merely suggests that better schools will produce the creative, innovative people who will keep America competitive.

This isn't to say that American schools are great, or that there's not a lot riding on their success.

It's a call to reality to all those fancy folks, few of whom have ever had to deal with a classroom of 30-plus kids of varying abilities and disabilities, temperaments and backgrounds -- often with little support -- and haven't a clue what the job entails.
Published on the California Progress Report.

Schrag gets it mostly correct. What further needs explaining is how scores on California tests improve by over 100 points while scores of the same kids on the national NAEP exams remain stagnant.
Its amusing to read Schrag on this. The last paragraph on this excerpt is precisely how I often feel after reading Schrag, he doesn't have a clue on what the job entails. Although his son did complete teacher preparation so perhaps he is listening to a teacher during vacation visits. I hope so.

Duane Campbell
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