Columns » Bob McCord

Schools still failing

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Unfortunately, there are many Americans who don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with our schools regardless of what they read or what judges say. Other than Governor Huckabee and a handful of legislators, most of the people involved with education have never been convinced that the Arkansas Supreme Court was right when it ruled that our schools were so bad they were unconstitutional. You can tell that by looking at the bills being introduced by legislators now in session. While they are wrestling to find millions of dollars to pay for the remodeling of old, ratty school buildings (which really should be torn down and the kids moved to another building or district), no serious effort has begun to find more money to improve education. Arkansas ranks 49th in the amount of money that states spend per child in their public schools. New York spends the most— $12,059 per child. The national average is $8,208 per child. Arkansas pays $5,738 per child. Meanwhile, some legislators are busy trying to deny state scholarships to the children of illegal immigrants, a few want to reduce the teaching of music and art in the schools and others are trying to require the use of school books that say that no two persons can get married unless they are a man and a woman. Jacksonville parents and school officials want to have their own school district, which would mean that Pulaski County would have four school districts whereas it ought to have only one, two at the most. The Beebe School Board has decided it will continue to use textbooks that had stickers applied that question evolution. Americans, and especially Arkansans, should start trying to improve the education we offer to our children. We are proud our college enrollments are gaining, but the fact is that colleges in China graduate twice as many students as our colleges do and six times as many engineering majors. India graduates about a million more students than the U.S., including 100,000 more in sciences and 60,000 more in engineering. Last week National Public Radio interviewed people from the Institution of Education Sciences and a few Americans who had taught in schools in other countries. Grover Russ Whitehurst, the institution’s director, said its surveys showed that U.S. schools weren’t doing very well. “We do quite well at fourth grade, a little bit above average at eighth grade, but by the time we’re at the 12th grade in high school, American students are the caboose on the train.” He said that curriculum is an important part of the problem. “One expert has characterized mathematics and science curricula in this country as a mile wide and an inch deep. That is, we tend to cover a lot of topics in a particular grade.” In mathematics graduates, needed greatly in today’s world, Americans ranked 27th among the nations. Seventy-one percent of students in other countries are taught by teachers with degrees in math. That was true for only 41 percent of American students. Is the pay of teachers a problem? No, said Whitehurst. In fact, Switzerland is the only country that pays more to teachers than the U.S. His opinion is teachers in other countries demand more of their students, set higher standards and have more knowledge of what they are doing. “I think one of the reasons is that we haven’t had good definitions of what it means to be a highly qualified teacher. That has been addressed in part by No Child Left Behind, but there are still gaps in terms of the training of teachers. They are really set quite low.” An Albanian teacher now teaching in the U.S. called in to say that neither American parents nor children are as serious about education as they are in Albania, one of the poorest nations in the world. Another caller said that in Great Britain and other countries, they were “weeding out” deficient students when they were 12 or 13 and sent to trade schools. “They don’t get second chances.” Steve Leinwand of the American Institute of Research was on the show, and he told about education in Singapore, which has what is often called the world’s best educational system. Examinations are given to all students at the end of the sixth grade to sort out what kind of school, academy or technical, they will attend. There are only 15 topics taught each year, an idea he said was being adopted by California, cutting to only 20 topics, whereas there are 39 in Florida, 29 in Maryland, 26 in Ohio, etc. What should be done? Craig Barrett, the CEO of Intel and a partner with the Education Trust, answered the question recently in an article in the Wall Street Journal — the federal government should assist states to raise standards, state governments must do what’s necessary to improve the quality of teaching, high schools must require exit tests and colleges should make admissions based on these tests. In Arkansas, I want to add that we need to be more careful whom we elect to the legislature and our school boards.

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