Saturday, January 21, 2017

Education Faces Stormy Weather Ahead

The latest tally of international test scores pegs U.S. students 20th in the world in reading and 31st in math, not much of a change from past comparisons of education. And we still can't fill job openings in this country that require math or science or engineering degrees -- particularly computer science, where even a big influx of foreign graduates doesn't fill the slots.

That's a bad combination: Lousy education plus shortfalls in degrees, most in difficult fields of study, where there are available jobs.

Why is this?

Nobody knows for sure. Many think students today are coddled, have a sense of entitlement. The world owes them something. Liberal politics, political correctness, the need for constant gratification, kumbaya attitudes all contribute to this, leading to a kind of malaise. Hard work and dedication are relics, things of the past, grandpa's quaint notion that has no relevance today. (I see this in some, but not all, of my grandchildren.)

Others say, no, that's wrong. Today's youth have the same potential, the same fire as students from past generations. The difference is the teaching. The school's are failing today's young people. Controlled by teacher-centric unions, the schools dumb down education, moving students to graduation to boost their standing with the state, please parents and keep the funds rolling in. Never mind that nearly half of today's high school graduates are inadequately prepared for college or the workplace.

Locally, we hear self-congratulatory boasts about graduation rates. The Naples Children & Education Foundation, a well-meaning group I'm sure, recently equated an 83% graduation rate in Collier County schools with "superior classroom performance." Superior performance by whose measure? Certainly not when compared to the rest of the world.

The caveat is always that students in South Florida really do pretty well, considering many are hampered by poverty or language deficiencies because of immigrant parents. And that may be so. But moving disadvantaged students through to graduation to inflate school ratings does no one any favors.   And it does nothing to fill jobs or help Florida's economy or boost American competitiveness. It's a lose-lose proposition.

Proper measures of learning, we are told, come from standardized testing or standardized essay writing or standardized problem solving or some combination. The trouble is no one agrees on the standards. Common Core has been demonized, wrongly, as an Obama attempt to impose government on education. Forty-some states still use Common Core or some variation (after shedding the troublesome name) as a means of gauging whether students have learned enough to be moved to a higher grade.

But many reject standardized testing altogether, concerned that it places undue stress on poor Joey. Free the teachers from teaching to the test, they say. Pursue stress-free education; comfortable mediocrity is okay. Everybody gets a participation trophy. And the Florida legislature is helping. Bills are being drafted that would reduce mandated testing, scuttle end-of-course exams and stop use of test results to evaluate teachers and schools. Next will be home rule that lets every county devise its own measures -- a potpourri of standards that will defy comparison to test results anywhere else in the world.

So what is the answer? Apart from measuring quality, what is the solution for improving public education, particularly for the disadvantaged? The Trump administration and many in Tallahassee say part of the answer is school choice. Provide vouchers that allow students to shop for better schools. Improve access to charter schools. Give parents a choice.

The argument against that has always been vouchers and charter schools siphon money away from traditional public schools. As a result, communities suffer economically. But a recent study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty found just the opposite. For students participating in Milwaukee's voucher program, the study projected nearly $500 million in economic benefits through 2035 due to higher graduation and lower crime rates. And certainly the remarkable successes of inner-city charter schools in New York City and New Orleans have been widely reported.

But critics say this is all a smokescreen; school choice isn't the answer at all. The real problem is we don't spend enough to give traditional public schools a chance to succeed. Florida is 41st among states in per-student funding. Even a modest increase, critics say, would pay huge dividends. But Florida, like many other states, has a balanced-budget requirement. And this year, funds are tight, with education competing with job growth, security measures, environmental demands and a host of other priorities.

So there's no easy answer or even an agreement on strategy. I'm not hopeful we'll see much improvement in the near future.

How about an altogether different approach? Instead of fighting a losing battle with U.S. schools, maybe we should loosen immigration requirements. Then we could lure graduates from those countries whose students do better than 20th in reading and 31st in math!

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