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Society needs reforms as much as schools do

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Education is failing in the United States for most children, and the efforts at reform currently suggested, especially by the Bush administration, are ludicrous and inadequate. As an editorial in U.S. News & World Report (not a leftist or liberal publication) claimed, Aug. 24, 1992, "George Bush has been the education president only in the sense that Herbert Hoover was the prosperity president."

Most suggestions for improving education do not make specific distinctions between the reforms that must take place within the society at large and the reforms that must take place within the school itself. Before we can have a decent chance for significant improvements in the academic performance of American children, we must transform the society so that it provides for far better care for its children.

To begin to lay the foundations for academic success for American children at the most fundamental level, we must move from being a pro-birth society and an anti-child society into a society that treats pregnancy with full personal responsibility and is truly pro-child.

The family, as well as the schools, must educate future American citizens into recognizing that parenting is the most difficult developmental task that an individual can undertake, and no one should choose the parental role without the full realization that there are great burdens as well as great pleasures in this calling. Our schools and other relevant institutions must do a far better job in teaching parenting skills to all potential parents and make it clear that those not willing to learn such skills should not become parents.

We have 2-million cases of child abuse reported each year. The United States permits 2-million children to illegally engage in work, much of it dangerous, as was recently reported in the New York Times. We have one of the poorest systems of preschool child-care facilities among modern nations, even though over 60 percent of mothers of young children work outside the home. We are the only major industrial society that does not provide insured adequate health care for all pregnant women and proper health care for mother and infant after birth. One-seventh of our families live in substandard housing.

It may be no school system, even the best our current science can devise, can deal effectively with economically deprived children, unwanted children or children who do not have proper health care before they enter school and during their school years.

As to the transformation of our school system: Though school choice is claimed to be an educational panacea by the Bush administration, the fact remains that nearly all of our foreign competitors, who score far higher on international tests of academic competence than do Americans, do not have school choice as part of their educational practice. In fact, their educational systems are highly centralized and choice of both schools and subject matter is strictly controlled by a national administration.

This is not to argue that we should necessarily adopt the centralized curricula of other nations. Public school choice should be tried here on an experimental basis. But if Bush thinks his six goals for education for the 21st century are going to be achieved merely through school choice, he's smoking the same kind of stuff that led him to make his no-new-taxes pledge.

There are approaches to American schooling that have not been tried as yet that show great promise, but I suspect the miseducated, not-too-bright American public will not be willing to support or pay for them, and a fair number of the members of the current educational establishment will be philosophically opposed to them.

For the 21st century, we are going to need teachers and schools with the following characteristics: 1. Recruits applying for public school teaching must come from at least the top 25 percent of the academic talent pool, not from the bottom 25 percent as is currently the case. As Lee Iacocca claimed, in the truly rational society the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else. 2. We must be willing to pay high enough salaries to have such teachers give lifetime commitment to the profession. (Sixty percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years.) 3. We must increase the school year to the 210-230 days range rather than our current 180 days. And, in many urban underclass areas, it may be desirable to keep schools open 365 days a year, 12 hours a day, and combine the school with many other kinds of social services. 4. We need a computerized system of national testing and rankings of students at every grade level and at graduation. We need a swift follow up of such tests and rankings with research to determine the variables that account for academic success and intensive research to determine the causes for academic failure, at the individual level, the school level and the community level. We must remediate rapidly based on the findings of such research. 5. We need a different taxing system to finance public schools, so that every American child receives the proper monetary support for academic success. We cannot produce future educated citizens nationwide if one school district is able to allot only $3,000 per pupil while another school district is able to allot $8,000 per pupil toward public education, as is common at present. 6. We need teachers who understand what the scientific method is all about and who are prepared to apply it to their profession. (My research indicates that most teacher candidates are woefully deficient in this regard.) 7. We need teachers who have the right psychological profile for nurturing children and, in addition, have an intense desire to educate themselves and to educate others. A significant number of our present teacher candidates are entering the profession not so much because they are genuinely concerned about children and education but because other career opportunities for one reason or another have been denied them. 8. The standards for entry into the profession of teaching in the 50 states must undergo significant change, and the colleges of education must transform themselves from the second-rate institutions many of them now are, into institutions capable of meeting the many challenges facing us in the school and in society.

According to James O. Friedman, president of Dartmouth College, "We need teachers who can, by the model of their mastery and the glow of their enthusiasm, capture the minds and imagination of students _ teachers who can motivate students to pursue their studies with vigor and excitement, teachers who can animate their students to achieve, with assurance and satisfaction, their individual destinies."

Neither American society nor the colleges of education are presently creating the conditions necessary to recruit this kind of individual in any great numbers into the teaching profession. Until we create those conditions, American schools and American society will continue to flounder.

Robert Primack is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Florida, Gainesville.