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A buck-passing quest for reading, writing and 'rithmetic'

By Marion Edwyn Harrison
web posted March 7, 2005

The National Conference of State Legislatures ("NCSL") is reported to seek changes in the fundamental provisions of President George W. Bush's much publicized No Child Left Behind Act. By more than coincidence, the NCSL President is a Democratic Member of the liberal Maryland State Legislature. Many Governors, mostly overlooking, or winking at, their own State educational deficiencies, now are complaining about that which the Federal Government is doing or is seeking to do -- arguing, for example, that No Child Left Behind Act standards are too uniform and too strict.

More realistically, Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates, III, better known as Bill Gates, and not a candidate for election or re-election, has offered suggestions for sweeping and fundamental restructuring of American high schools.

To what extent and in what mixture National Education Association ("NEA"), NCSL and State politicians' complaints about President Bush's initiatives, about the U.S. Department of Education and about Congressional enactments are wholly or partially legitimate begs a fundamental maxim: Secondary education historically has been, and should continue to be, fundamentally State and local. Various Constitutional scholars, federalists and others would go so far as to abolish the federal role in primary and secondary education and return full control and financing to the States and localities.

How to quantify cause and effect would be not less than an exercise in futility. Yet a glaring reality manifests itself -- namely, public secondary education has worsened over the years since the Federal Government intruded into the act and self-interest outfits like NEA (which scarcely has seen a liberal cause it did not applaud) became more ubiquitous and more powerful.

Statistics are appalling. Just a few as examples: Only about 68 per cent of public high school students graduate on time. The drop-out rate has increased annually since 1983, when, with foresight, the Reagan Administration issued a report, "A Nation at Risk," citing the already growing crisis. About 40 per cent of high school graduates enter college, only 27 per cent of that group continuing beyond the freshman year. Only 18 per cent of those high school graduates who enter college graduate from college on time.

How does American secondary education compare worldwide? By one survey, among 20 leading developed nations the United States ranks 16th in percentage of high school students graduating, 14th in percentage of college students graduating. Further -- and of tremendous significance in international commerce -- China and India, not generally considered "developed" nations and certainly among the per-capita poorer, each graduate more engineers than does our country.

One need not rely upon statistics. Look about us. Whether it's the ability to write or speak even half-way correct grammar and syntax, to do elementary arithmetic, to name one's (or anybody's) Senators or Congressman, to distinguish the Constitution from the Declaration of Independence, to distinguish Mount Rushmore from Rush Limbaugh, to differentiate the Cardinals on the playing field from those that fly around or those who wear red hats, too many teachers are fearful of asking questions, much less flunking a student, less the liberals wreak havoc upon the teachers for jeopardizing the self-respect of the ignorant student, reviling his race or ethnicity or committing some other alleged politically incorrect act. Not surprisingly, requirements of discipline, decorum and proper apparel are nearly pervasive no-noes. (In the Nation's Capitol -- which, of course, operates a school system at or near rock bottom -- in some schools the truancy rate alone exceeds 50 per cent of the student body.)

We each have had our own empirical experiences, individually proving little, in the aggregate manifesting pervasive and serious deficiencies. Have you tried to get a cashier to compute simple numbers when the cash register momentarily is down? -- e.g., if one were to buy two 76-cent bolts, how to calculate change from a $ 5.00 bill, an insurmountable challenge for a cashier in a major Northern Virginia automobile dealership? How you asked a telephone information operator for something more challenging than the precise name of a listing or anything about geography? -- e.g., yes, Henderson, Nevada, a Las Vegas suburb, also is in Clark County; East Saint Louis isn't in Missouri. Have you asked a building desk clerk if a certain office is in the building and, if so, upon what floor? -- e.g., in Washington, D. C., she could explain where the (somewhat misplaced) directory is located but could not remember a major tenant. So on . . .

In so many instances if the individual is older or is an immigrant (especially Asian, Southeast Asian, Indian Subcontinent, and Europe, where secondary education often is better) the likelihood he or she can function at and beyond the elementary is greater.

In previous Notable News Now columns we have wondered, in the context of educational deficiencies, "How Many American Jobs Will Flee Abroad? (February 6, 2004), or whether "Apparel Oft Proclaims the Man." (March 17, 2004). We also should be wondering what Governors, State Legislatures, State and local school boards, State and local school administrators -- yes, even NEA, so busy with social issues -- are doing to bring education home and to improve it. Too many find it easier to denounce the laudable efforts of President Bush and DOE people -- efforts born as a last resort. Elementary and secondary education belong closest to the people. To achieve that goal those responsible at State and local levels must come alive, infuse some realism into their thinking. It is no surprise that home-schooling has become such a popular alternative, especially in primary education. Whether the $2.3 billion due over time from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help much remains to be seen.

Meantime, the folks at home need to get back to reading, writing and 'rithmetic; order; discipline; self-reliance. Those abroad seeking a better life will not lay back; they will compete as competitors abroad and as immigrants here -- in both locales usually lesser paid and better educated.

Marion Edwyn Harrison is President of, and Counsel to, the Free Congress Foundation.

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