Jay Ambrose: U.S. must rescue its public schools, and quickly

By Jay Ambrose

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

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A report on American K-12 education as a security threat, a bullyboy teachers' strike and an emotionally powerful movie combine as a convincing lesson plan instructing us that we must rescue our schools soon — and that we can.

We spend more than any other country per student and get less than most. That's one finding of a Council on Foreign Relations task force that revisited old ground when it told us we rank 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading on standardized tests comparing us to other industrialized nations. The group was up to something less familiar when it talked about 30 percent of high school graduates unable to pass tests to get in the armed services and vast numbers of the poor being unemployable.

The report said our schools have the shortest day and year among developed countries and get maybe 22 percent ready for college. The nation is becoming less unified, less competitive, less a force in the world and, for a reversal, we have to have more school choice, more competition among schools, more accountability and higher standards, the majority concluded. They believe it's hugely important to pay special attention to science, math and foreign languages.

In and of itself, spending more won't get us there, the task force said, though spending was of major importance to 26,000 Chicago teachers who make an average of $76,000 a year. They just won hundreds of more millions in raises in a system digging itself a multibillion-dollar hole.

The increase came as a result of a strike meant to show how much the teachers were dedicated to the 350,000 students they were deserting, or so they said. Meanwhile, it's reported that 40 percent of those victims won't graduate, that 66 percent of the schools do not meet state standards and 80 percent of the eighth-graders aren't up to snuff in their reading abilities. The only heartening statistic is that 97 percent of the teachers get a satisfactory rating, only somehow you suspect the number does not reflect the reality.

A big issue was evaluating teachers in part by testing the progress of students. The strikers, who didn't like the idea even though teachers helped devise the specifics, did finally agree with a version of the plan. Something more decisive happened to one bureaucratically oppressed school in the movie, "Won't Back Down." A poor, single mom, desperately worried about her dyslexic daughter in the hands of an uncaring teacher, joined forces with other parents for something resembling a revolution, and you found yourself pulling, pulling, pulling for them.

She was especially helped by one teacher, who was eventually joined by a number of other teachers portrayed as eager to do a good job, though terribly worn down. They gave up their union to fight for a charter school that would have few other encumbrances, either, and you might guess how the education establishment is reacting to the movie: barf, ugh, groan, moan, go away right-wingers.

Some quick observations: Charter schools are not always great, but, according to one study I read about, they tend to work well in poor urban areas, as has proven the case in some Chicago neighborhoods. Most teachers deserve applause, but the biggest fault of the unions is that they protect the lousy ones who ruin lives. If the wrong kinds of standardized tests are improperly administered without taking account of other factors, they won't help much in evaluating teachers, though the right kind, administered well, should be part of the picture.

The biggest issue is to get rid of the worst teachers, and I am grateful for an article causing me to locate and read an essay by Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University professor (hanushek.stanford.edu/publications/valuing-teachers-how-much-good-teacher-worth). He makes a convincing case that replacing the worst teachers even with average ones can make an enormous difference in the lives of students and the welfare of the country. We need to do it fairly, but we definitely need to do it.

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. Email: SpeaktoJay@aol.com.

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