`Obsolete'? Far from it

March 14, 2005|By Nicholas Leonhardt

OBSOLETE: Webster's Handy College Dictionary defines it as "gone out of use; out of date." Students should note this definition since Microsoft-chairman-turned-education-guru Bill Gates recently labeled American high schools "obsolete."

On Feb. 26, Mr. Gates opened the National Education Summit, attended by the governors of 45 states, by announcing that secondary education is not just "broken, flawed or underfunded," but the nation's high schools are "the wrong tool for the times."

That should come as a shock to students peering through microscopes in modern science labs or Googling their way through high-speed computer classes, and an insult to teachers who continually update their education to remain ahead of "the times."

Mr. Gates charges that too much of the curriculum is out of date. Thank goodness, or students wouldn't be taking Latin, a "dead" language enjoying a rebirth.

Of course, American education can be improved, starting with the dropout rate.

For every 100 students entering ninth grade, 32 won't graduate on time, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. But you don't have to be on the honor roll to understand that 68 will graduate on time, a fact that would be impossible if the schools actually were "broken." More important, an increasing number of those graduates meet the stiffer requirements of honors or gifted-and-talented programs and qualify for college credits through Advanced Placement exams.

Many high school students will agree that it's not easy being a kid today. Fifty years ago, youngsters could spend their first five years in child's play before kindergarten prepared them for academics. Thirty years later, no self-respecting tot entered preschool before learning the alphabet from the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. Today's infants are expected to enter the delivery room with an appreciation for classical music and foreign language, courtesy of audio tapes broadcast toward the womb. The latest craze is to teach babies sign language as early as six months so they can communicate before they can talk.

Yet once kids learn to talk, they can claim some impressive gains in education. At the University of Maryland, College Park, the academic profile of students continues to rise.

The average grade point average of incoming freshmen was 3.9 and the average SAT score nearly 1,300 (out of a possible 1,600) in the fall of 2003. The improvement in SAT results follows a national trend as the average math score in 2003 was the highest in 35 years while the average verbal score was the best since 1987. For schools that are supposedly "flawed," something is working well.

In his speech, Mr. Gates gave high schools a flunking grade by asserting that "only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship." But more than half of the nation's students perform college-level work while still in high school.

According to the College Board, nearly 57 percent of public high school students took AP classes in 2004. Even more impressive, 63 percent of the students taking the end-of-the-year AP exam scored a 3 or better, which means most universities will award them college credits for the course. Maryland's students should feel particular pride: The state ranks second after New York for the highest scores on AP tests.

Education is, and will always be, a hot political issue. An earlier governors education summit targeted the inadequacies in elementary education, which spurred President Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind law. Now Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who is considered a possible 2008 Democratic candidate for president, has made upgrading high schools his main goal while chairing the National Governors Association.

Even Mr. Gates cites "political will" as the main problem in education, yet he packages his remarks as well as any politician seeking a media sound bite. "Obsolete" is punchy enough to appear in headlines about high schools - but successful students have the right to punch back.

Certainly American schools can do more to teach job skills and train workers who do not plan to enter college, but even this presents a dangerous tradeoff. By reducing their academic subjects to focus on learning specific job skills, students will never take the subjects needed to enter college. The curriculum that is supposed to empower them may effectively limit their future.

The nation should be grateful to Mr. Gates and his wife for the $700 million they have donated to reduce high school class sizes and for the promise of millions more. But before benefactors and politicians promise to repair a "broken, flawed" educational system, they ought to protect the part of it that really works.

Nicholas Leonhardt is a senior at Loyola Blakefield High School who lives in Lutherville.

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