America's back to school blues

Things aren't getting much better, and the problem isn't 'lack of resources'

August 19, 2010|By Ron Smith

Here's some good news about the state of American education as school kids head back to their classroom confinement. I'm kidding. There is mostly more of the same old bad news, the same professed amazement on the part of the educational establishment and the media that we haven't made things much better when it comes to schooling.

Perhaps you'll recall that three years ago a report was released by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute saying that students are graduating from the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country actually knowing less about history, government and economic than they did as incoming freshmen. Harvard seniors scored a D+ average on a 60-question multiple-choice test about civic literacy. These are the people picked to lead the rest of us into the future. No wonder our leaders seem so maladapted to their tasks. The story wasn't any better at other high-status schools. In fact, the average senior at the 50 institutions studied did not receive a passing grade on this test.

As you might suspect, the last three years have not seen any elevation in the quality of American education. Of the 2010 high school grads who took the ACT college entrance exam, fewer than a quarter showed they were capable of doing entry-level college work. Imagine how little they'll have learned after four years of beer drinking, hooking up and being able to gain credits for taking courses that are risible. Every year, the Young America Foundation lists the most laughable courses offered to our young college elite. At Cornell, they can take a course called Tree Climbing. At Stanford, a course is available on iPhone Application Planning. (I'm not kidding.) At Alfred University in New York, a course is offered on Maple Syrup: The Real Thing. The list goes on, but we get the point.

Every year there is much gnashing of teeth and flailing about by dutiful observers alarmed by the deficiencies of our public education system. They always conclude that the shortcomings are caused by a "lack of resources." A network "education reporter" said the other evening that the persistent racial gap in classroom performance could well be narrowed by the president's "Race to the Top," under which states compete for $4 billion in federal largesse, to be poured down the same old rat hole. We can expect nothing much will change, because all the previous expensive plans and programs have failed to make much of a positive impact. They keep doing the same thing, expecting magic to happen, or at least pretending to believe this time things will be different.

The New York Times says all the professed success in closing the racial performance gap claimed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor as they testified before Congress two years ago, was actually, well, a fiction. More accurate portrayals of students' abilities in tests done this year show the gap remains and is just about as wide as ever. Asian kids do a bit better than whites, with Latino students far behind and blacks bringing up the rear. Back to the drawing board go the educrats and pols with the clock ticking on No Child Left Behind, the extensive, expensive fantasy concocted by the ill-educated elites of both parties to erase the "shameful" gap. Remember, academic outcomes of all the children were to have been equalized by 2014. Since that's not going to happen, look for the deadline to be extended. That will almost certainly be kicked down the road for others to deal with later.

Fantasies are nice, but reality remains right there when the reverie ends. And the reality is that the racial differences in test scores and academic achievement have persisted ever since measuring such things was instituted. The reasons for it are hotly debated. Is it group IQ? You can't really go there. It's not allowed. Is it cultural? What does that mean? Is it the result of being economically disadvantaged? Maybe, but some disadvantaged immigrant groups have had their children excel in school. How come?

Lots of questions, much bickering over the answers, and year after year nothing much changes. Look for lots more of the same.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon, on 1090 WBAL-AM and His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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