Since Americans love surveys and polls, let's start with this one: a study released last week comparing math and science achievement by schoolchildren in 20 countries showed Americans, overall, ranked near the bottom. For example, in the science portion of the test given to 13-year-olds, only Ireland and Jordan ranked lower than the United States.
By now, of course, such depressing numbers have a familiar ring to them. Americans, it seems, have grown accustomed to this poll or that survey confirming what we already know: that public education in the United States is a sick and declining institution.
The symptoms are clearly visible: growing numbers of school dropouts, chronic truancy, low test scores, decaying physical plants, school violence and high-school graduates with sixth-grade reading skills.
Given such evidence, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that our educational system, once the envy of the world, no longer works.
Or does it?
According to a new University of Michigan study, our public school systems are doing a good job of educating some children. And, they're doing it without more money, more computers and more hours spent in school. Furthermore, the students excelling in the low-income, metropolitan-area schools observed in the study are not in classes with fewer students or single-sex classes or classes that "teach" self-esteem.
So what's going on here? Have the public schools gotten a bum rap?
The answer is "yes" -- but a very limited yes. The prevailing American school system does work well -- but only for those LTC children who arrive at school ready to learn. Simply put, the Michigan researchers found out that children will succeed in today's schools if they come from a family with a strong commitment to learning.
This was the basic conclusion reached in the Michigan researchers' study of Indochinese refugee families whose children -- most of whom knew no English upon arriving here -- were found to be excelling in public schools where academic achievement is not the norm. And such achievements, they write, "held true for the majority, not for just a few whiz kids."
Underlying factors in the success of these Indochinese children include: family involvement in the student's homework; family values placed on reading and learning; teaching children to set realistic learning goals; stressing the importance of effort as opposed to ability.
This kind of strong emphasis placed on learning in the family setting, the researchers found, makes the transition between school and home less jolting to children. As a result, they write, "the children feel at home in school and, consequently, perform well there."
All of their findings led the Michigan researchers to conclude that the "American school system -- despite widespread criticism -- has retained its capacity to teach, as it has shown with these refugees. We believe that the view of our schools as failing to educate stems from the unrealistic demand that the educational system deal with urgent social service needs."
In other words, American teachers are being asked to act as substitute parents: they feed their students breakfast; teach them about the dangers of drugs and casual, unprotected sex; and try to mitigate against the violent world so many students return to after school.
So much for the diagnosis. What's the remedy? How do we free teachers from parental duties and get parents more involved in their children's lives?
By now it is perfectly clear that for many children there are no responsible parents. And it seems thoughtlessly cruel to say that such children should be prepared for school by parents when that is not an option. Which is why such programs as Head Start and family support centers are so important.
But that does not let the school systems off the hook. Why not take some of the hundreds of paper-pushing school administrators out of their centralized offices and put them in the schools? Let them perform the social services so many kids need nowadays, freeing up teachers to teach.
And, while we're at it, why not move many of the functions of social service departments into the schools? Why not put social workers where they can deal with the same families and children on a day-to-day basis in a setting that is far less intimidating than the "big building downtown?"
But the real answer, of course, lies in re-inventing some kind of family life -- or family-life surrogate -- that teaches children that learning can be exciting and satisfying. Do that and the rest will follow.