Good news from the New York Times! The newspaper of record noted earlier this month, "Students' Test Scores Show Slow but Steady Gains at Nation's Schools." It seems that 60 percent of American fourth-graders showed a minimal reading competence! If that's not cause for celebration, try this: 78 percent of 13-year-olds can add, subtract, multiply, and divide! That's up from 75 percent in 1990!
Let's get real, press propagandists. The Times pretends that the public-school system is not an utter failure. Newsweek in a cover story exults about "Generation G," young high-tech Americans traveling throughout the globe. Meanwhile, millions of children are left behind, with so little knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic that they can't even qualify for the low-tech jobs that remain.
In your own community, dear reader, you may also be encountering educrat happytalk. The threat of homeschools and private schools was supposed to make the government schools do better; it has certainly made them hire more public relations staffers. In my own city of Austin, for example, the press releases hit the front page when 11 schools pulled themselves off the low-performing list and became "acceptable." That sounds great, but "acceptable" only means that at least 35 percent of the students passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test.
Is a 35 percent success rate good news? Is it good news when even that figure is achieved only with some addendums, a few quid pro quos, as the genie in Aladdin might say. (I'm boycotting Disney but not all references to Disney movies.) The newspaper reports did not explain that the TAAS test itself has a reputation as a dumbed-down exam. And it took some digging to find out that a school showing "significant improvement" may be rated acceptable even if it does not achieve that stupendous success rate of 35 percent.
Is your local school district fudging its failure the same way? Has it also lowered its expectations so far that it regards a 35 percent pass rate as acceptable? Let me see if I can figure out a TAAS-type question: If at least 35 percent pass, doesn't that mean that up to 65 percent fail? And in that case, how can anyone who is not cruel consider those schools "acceptable"? How can anyone in good conscience send so many children from these schools out into the world with so little preparation?
Maybe guilt about continued educational failure is the reason so many Washington officials are busy developing loopholes to resurrect the failed welfare system. Maybe they see no alternative to bringing back not the New Deal (which emphasized work) but a Bad Deal for millions of Americans that goes like this: Don't complain about the poor education you receive. Give up your hopes to break out of poverty. And we, in turn, will keep you on the welfare rolls indefinitely by exempting you from work "requirements."
To get a good job, get a good education. To go on welfare, be one of the many who lose out at an "acceptable" school. Lying to kids by telling them their bad schools are acceptable really does make me mad. Two studies several years ago showed 60-67 percent of inner-city teen females believing they would not be any worse off if they became pregnant. Most of those very young women, in other words, saw welfare support as a given, and did not see economic advance likely, so there was no reason not to become a single parent and remain poor, but with a child to love. Most of them probably went to "acceptable" schools.
Welfare reform was designed to change the message, but now the Bad Deal is back. And many inner-city males, poorly educated in our "acceptable" schools, will continue to receive an equally tragic message: You're not needed economically. Uncle Sam will move in with your woman, so get lost, or pick up a Go to Jail card.
This is bleak but true, I fear. As Bob Jones's WORLD cover story noted earlier this month, imposing a nationwide testing system is likely only to make things worse. There is only one kind of good news that is believable here, and it is the good news of Jesus Christ. Our central educational question should be: How will more children, poor as well as affluent, have access to schools that transmit the good news that they, and all of us, desperately need?
If we don't come up with a good answer and put it into practice, welcome to a bleak 21st century.