Yes, the schools need fixing -- Does Clinton see what's broken?

Charles Murray

January 11, 1993|By Charles Murray

PRESIDENT-ELECT Bill Clinton is right to make education a top priority.

He is wrong in his understanding of what needs fixing.

Not one of his main educational policies -- increased loan assistance for college students, national educational standards linked to federal aid and more job retraining -- addresses the problems we are facing.

Here are some propositions that Mr. Clinton and Richard W. Riley, his nominee for secretary of education, should look into:

* Giving qualified students a chance at college is something we already do well.

More than three-quarters of the nation's top students already go to four-year colleges. The number of top students who don't go to college because of lack of money is minuscule.

It is fine to make it possible for every qualified student to go to college, but there is not much room for improvement.

If Mr. Clinton's loan plan succeeds in significantly expanding enrollment, it may well damage university education: Campuses will be flooded with still more students who are not ready for college-level material. That this view is elitist does not make it wrong.

* National standards cannot be high standards. Mr. Clinton's desire for high standards in elementary and secondary schools is appropriate.

But powerful lobbies important to his election, among them the National Education Association and the NAACP, oppose standards high enough to cause large numbers of teachers and students to fail, and ultimately improve.

Inevitably, national standards will be glorified minimum competency exams. To tie federal financing to these exams would push schools still closer to the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy.

* Retraining isn't the problem: retrainability is. Advancing technology is making it easier, not harder, for companies to retrain workers.

Moreover, public schools are not doing a worse job teaching basic academic skills. National test data indicate that the average American child reads, writes and does arithmetic as well as he or she did in the 1950s.

The real failure in U.S. schools for the average and below-average student has been in socializing them to adult behavior.

Old-fashioned public schools prepared students for the workplace by teaching them to come to the same place every day, stay there for a prescribed number of hours and follow the teacher's (boss') instructions, even if they didn't feel like it.

This training in how to be a good worker was especially important for children who grew up in disorganized homes.

In many schools, particularly those in urban areas, this socializing function no longer exists. How can it be restored?

Rethinking student rights would be a start. Maybe public boarding schools could have a role. The apprenticeship programs Clinton endorses for other reasons might help too.

The answers are tough, but at least the new administration can begin focusing on the right questions. For many children, schools are their only chance to learn how to be adults companies can train -- and retrain.

* Education has gone downhill academically -- for the gifted. Achievement among the best students fell substantially during the 1960s and 1970s.

Their math scores recovered somewhat during the 1980s but verbal scores did not. This means that deterioration has been most pronounced in the reasoning and analytic skills crucial to the development of intellectual creativity and judgment.

Our best students may go to college in large numbers, but they arrive much more poorly developed than their counterparts of 30 years ago. Meanwhile, programs for the gifted languish or disappear altogether.

If Mr. Clinton and Mr. Riley determine that these are accurate statements, here are some challenges to put to his advisers: Stop proposing solutions for things we do well. Start thinking about what preparation students really need to become productive workers.

Pay more attention to the education of the thin layer of gifted who, like it or not, will determine whether we remain the world's pre-eminent nation in the 21st century.

Charles Murray is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He writes from Burkittsville.

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