Jay Leno knows how uninformed people are. He regularly interviews them on the street about basic things like, "Who would become president if Clinton were forced out of office?"
"Bob Dole?" said one of his subjects on a show last week.
Ratifying the findings of a comedian is the latest in a long list of academic studies that finds American public-school students at or near the bottom in critical areas such as math, science, and general knowledge. The survey of 500,000 kids from 21 nations not only found public-school children in the United States rated miserably in science and math, but even the best and brightest of American high-school seniors doing worse than most of their international peers in pre-calculus, calculus, and physics. No Asian country participated in the 12th-grade survey, which is probably good because the United States would likely have scored even lower given the high performance of Asian students.
The public-school monopoly can be expected to trot out the same explanations for the culture of failure they've created: inadequate buildings, poorly equipped science labs, underpaid and uncertified teachers, too little money (despite the huge amounts of money it currently receives).
As former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "The public school system as we know it has proved that it cannot fix itself. It is an ossified government monopoly that functions largely for the benefit of its employees and interest groups rather than that of children and taxpayers. American education needs a radical overhaul."
Mr. Finn recommends re-empowering parents, and that begins with giving them the choice and money to send their children to the schools they believe will provide the best education. When public education began, it had the egalitarian objective of supplying a social and intellectual melting pot that would ensure an equal education for everyone. It has succeeded in providing an equally bad education for too many.
Competition would raise all intellectual boats. It works in every other area of life. We need to stop focusing on the education system and look at the education product. This isn't a debate about school buildings, teachers' unions, retirement, political power, and status. It's about producing well-rounded students who are able to compete for jobs in an increasingly international arena and advance the interests of themselves and their country. The education they are currently receiving is not living up to these expectations. In business, people responsible for such low performance would be fired. In education, not only are they retained, but they ask for and receive more money, subsidizing incompetence and institutionalizing failure.
Not only are the public, or government, schools failing intellectually, they are failing morally. The schools have long been one large laboratory for teaching liberal views of sex and the environment, and rewrites of American history in favor of multicultural education. That's why American schoolchildren know less and less about their own land and why they increasingly see America as just one nation among equals, with little to recommend it over others.
Seventeen years ago, Secretary of Education Terrell Bell created a National Commission on Excellence in Education. Two years later it produced a report titled A Nation at Risk. In that report, we learned that: "Many 17-year-olds do not possess the 'higher order' intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps."
Since that 1983 report, things have gotten worse, but the focus has been on "reforming" the present system. The emphasis should be on replacing it.
Jay Leno asked another man in the street who knew nothing about presidential succession if he knew the names of the "Spice Girls." He got every one of them right.
© 1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate