Real teaching can get good results

May 31, 2000|By Thomas Sowell

TESTS SHOW that most low-income students in the eighth grade still cannot multiply or divide two-digit numbers by other two-digit numbers. That is, they cannot tell you what 14 times 15 equals or what 60 divided by 12 is.

Against this background, you might think that there would be enormous interest in those particular low-income and minority schools where the students equal or exceed the national norms in verbal or mathematical skills. But you would be wrong.

Some of these successful schools have had to run a gantlet of hassles from education bureaucrats. A principal of a successful minority school in California was hassled because she used phonics instead of "whole language" and because she taught foreign-born children in English instead of the various languages in the bilingual programs. The fact that she was succeeding where others were failing did not exempt her from being harassed.

In Massachusetts, a principal had trouble even getting approval to set up a school that would be using standardized tests to assess the progress of his students, most of whom were from minority groups. He was called a "racist" and a "Nazi." His students ended up with the highest test scores in town. Some Nazi!

However phony the accusation, the hostility behind it was very real. The education establishment -- the teachers unions, the schools of education and state and federal education bureaucrats --- are out to protect their turf and their dogmas at all costs. People who challenge their beliefs, in words or deeds, are to be denounced, demonized, harassed or otherwise driven from the scene.

Despite having to buck the education establishment, some brave principals and teachers have created oases of excellence for low-income, minority students in a vast educational desert. A recently published book titled "No Excuses" by Samuel Casey Carter provides sketches of 21 such schools, scattered around the country.

Again and again, this book shows schools where minority students from the bottom of the socioeconomic scale are scoring above the national average on standardized tests that are supposed to be so "culturally biased" that only white, middle-class students can do well on them. That is one of the many widely used excuses by "educators" who fail to educate. And that is why the very different philosophy in these successful schools is called a "No Excuses" philosophy -- no excuses for students or teachers.

How have successful schools for low-income, minority students done it? Largely by ignoring education "experts" and going against the theories and practices that reign elsewhere in American schools. Those schools which have low-income black, Hispanic and other minority students scoring higher than many white, middle-class students elsewhere in math and English typically feature real teaching rather than "activities" or "projects," phonics rather than "whole language," standardized tests rather than mushy evaluations, and in general a back-to-basics approach.

However, do not think for one moment that the failure of one theory of education and the success of another is going to change the people who run our public schools or who control our teachers' colleges. Those people have tenure and their pay is not affected in the slightest by whether they produce educated students.

Even incompetent teachers are hard to get rid of in most public school systems. In New York state, it takes an average of 15 months and more than $170,000 to fire one teacher.

From the standpoint of the education establishment in general, and the teachers unions in particular, our education system is not a failure, even though American children usually finish at or near the bottom in international tests. The public school system is a success for those who run it, in terms of protecting their jobs, their turf, their dogmas and -- above all -- their power to use vulnerable children as guinea pigs for the fads that come and go.

Parents, voters and taxpayers also need to understand that our public schools are not failing. They are succeeding in substituting self-serving agendas for the task of conveying the accumulated knowledge of the past to today's younger generation. While there are many serious social problems making it harder to educate children today, there are nevertheless schools which succeed in spite of those problems -- but only because education is their top priority.

Get a copy of "No Excuses." It is published by the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Thomas Sowell is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.