Back To School

Broadman & Holman, the publisher of my latest novel, The Jericho Sanction, sent me out on the road last week to promote the book. It occurred to me as I was skimming news stories about America’s youngsters returning to school that if high school students were our “target audience,” a sufficient number of them would not be able to read the words on the pages. Nor would their teachers.

A great disservice is being done to the young people of this country when it comes to preparing them intellectually for the challenges that lie ahead. When I was a student in New York’s public high schools, Shakespeare, Chaucer, The Iliad and Paradise Lost were required reading. We were forced to learn algebra, trigonometry and geometry even against our protests. To ensure that we understood the material, teachers used a novel concept — they tested us on the course requirements.

When today’s high school students are tested, they don’t seem to perform very well. In June, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the “Nation’s Report Card” showing that one in four 12th grade students are unable to read at a basic level. Only 36 percent of fourth grade students are able to master basic reading requirements.

In Maryland, half of the students who took “end-of-course examinations” failed them. The exams test students in government, algebra, English and biology. The State Board of Education decided to ignore the results and delay any further action on the matter for another year.

It was that kind of bureaucratic bungling that forced Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to make education reform a centerpiece of his administration. Long an opponent of “social promotion” from one grade to the next, Bush originally persuaded Florida legislators to forbid promotion to the fourth grade of the 30 percent of Florida third-graders who fail the basic literacy test. But the law contained a loophole that permitted promotion in cases where there was a “good cause.” So while 30 percent of third-graders failed the exam, only 3 percent were actually retained.

Recognizing that teachers and administrators were abusing the “good cause” loophole, Bush succeeded this May in revising Florida’s education code so that retention is now mandatory for third-graders who can’ t read.

Commenting on the NAEP test results, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said, “There is no scientific answer to why our high school seniors have performed so poorly on this reading assessment.”

Here are a few reasons students are not performing well. For starters, too many public school teachers are not proficient in the subjects they teach.

Last year in Pennsylvania, more than one-third of the 12,000 prospective math and science teachers failed certification exams. Nearly half of those who would teach Spanish in the Keystone State failed to pass, and approximately one-third failed the special education certification requirements. Yet, nearly 4,000 “emergency” teaching permits were issued to fill classroom vacancies.

In New York, 3,300 black and Latino teachers are suing the state after failing their certification tests, claiming it has hurt their careers.

In Lawrence, Mass., one-third of the teachers tested for fluency in English failed. The tests were required after the public forced schools, through ballot initiative, to drop most bilingual education programs. In Lawrence, the fallacy of bilingual education goes all the way to the top. Wilfredo Laboy, who earns $156,560 as the superintendent of public schools in Lawrence, failed the basic literacy test that all Massachusetts teachers must pass. In fact, Laboy has failed the test three times, although his supporters insist that the fourth time will be the charm.

Another problem is that public money meant to support education is wasted. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is opening the nation’s first homosexual-only public high school. He is also spending $20 million to support bilingual education — even though the program is failing in neighboring Massachusetts — and doing all this at the expense of six New York City firehouses he closed in the spring, citing budget constraints. Biloxi, Miss., located in a state with America’s poorest test scores, recently spent $2 million to install spy cameras in all classrooms. Somebody may want to look to see the last time George Orwell’s 1984 was last checked out of a Biloxi library.

And at its most recent convention in New Orleans, the National Education Association (NEA), which purports to be dedicated to teaching the nation’s public school students, had its delegates spend their time discussing and endorsing proposals that have nothing to do with education. For example, the NEA endorsed family planning, discrimination against home-schooled students, sex education, a national health care policy, statehood for the District of Columbia, and the International Court of Justice. Oh, yes, it also took the time to devote $1 million to electing Democrat candidates.

The reason public school students aren’t faring as well as they should is because they are being lead by politicians and education bureaucrats who care more about politics and political correctness than they do about educating America’s youth. Fortunately, new accountability standards are beginning to shake things up in the education establishment, and it’s about time. After all, the writing has been on the wall for many years. They just haven’t been able to read it.