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School days

By Jay Ambrose

The go-slow lights were blinking the other day as I drove past a neighborhood school. Cars were parked everywhere, virtually on top of each other, and mothers and fathers were leading little ones – sometimes holding their hands – to the red brick building. I could almost feel the knots in the stomachs, the excitement, the sense of something big happening.

The school year was starting, as it is in districts around the country. That event is indeed something big, but the question we Americans have been debating for some decades now is whether it is as big, as filled with possibilities, as it should be, whether the start of the school year is also the start of a significant educational experience, the sort of enlargement of mind and person once described in a speech by the brilliant education scholar Diane Ravitch.

“The schools must reassert the primary responsibility for the development of young people’s intelligence and character,” she said.

“Schools,” she is quoted as arguing, “must do far more than teach children how to learn and how to look things up: They must teach them what knowledge has most value, how to use that knowledge, how to organize what they know, how to understand the relationship between past and present, how to tell the difference between accurate information and propaganda, and how to turn information into understanding.”

Achieve this vision, and what you also achieve are richer, more rewarding lives than you will otherwise have, an improved democracy, a more competitive nation economically, more equality of income and vastly reduced poverty. Sadly, it’s a vision rotting on the vine, as the Department of Education tells us in a report on how American students measure up with foreign students in science and math tests: not so well.

For instance, it’s the case that our students who are 15 years old come in 21st out of the 28 countries in math, making me grateful for those seven worse countries and reminding me of a saying we used to have in my native state of Kentucky. When rankings of states in various categories of accomplishment were published, we were often next to last, but not last, and so we would grin and intone, “Thank God for Mississippi.”

Evidence of the kind in the report is plentiful, and the question is what do you do beyond taking relieved note that you are not quite at the bottom of the heap. Spend more? The analyst whose writing brought the education report to my attention – Dan Lips at the Heritage Foundation – points out in a paper that federal spending has been increasing at an exceptional rate over the years with next to no dividends to be found and that we spend far more from all sources per student than most countries that outperform us. The total on public school spending, he says, is $500 billion a year. That comes to about $100,000 a student for the years stretching from kindergarten through the 12th grade in high school.

Lips favors vouchers and school choice as a means of using such ample resources to beneficial effect, contending that competition among private and public schools will energize a system now serving approximately 50 million students. I suspect he and other advocates of the idea are right. I am definitely for far more experimentation and moving more and more in the direction of vouchers to the extent we garner empirical data backing up what seems solid theory.

A nationwide voucher system is not going to happen anytime soon, however, and in the meantime we need to continue reforming education schools that put too little emphasis on classroom content, developing charter schools, looking hard at our malfunctioning school boards, giving principals increased authority on a perform-or-scat basis, measuring what is being done in schools so students can be rescued from the worst of them and finding ever more ways to encourage more of the best and brightest among our young people to make education their careers.

In the end, there is no one reform that is going to make all of our schools exemplars of the Ravitch vision, though there is an attitude that is crucial –o ne that defines the educational ideal much as Ravitch does, that puts students before any other interest, that recognizes the huge importance of what’s at stake … and an attitude that is positive about what can be done, no matter what the obstacles.

Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com.

Originally published by the Scripps Howard News Service on August 22, 2006.