A national crisis in our schools

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"The foundation of every state is the education of its youth," said Diogenes Laertius, a third-century biographer of the ancient Greek philosophers. The foundation of our nation is in alarming disrepair.

Nearly 80 percent of high school graduates in New York City can't read, write or figure well enough to meet the standards for entering community college, the CBS affiliate there reported Thursday.

We're not talking about Columbia or NYU. We're talking about the lowest rung on the higher education ladder. Yet in what CBS 2 described as a "bombshell" report, 79.3 percent of high school graduates who enter City University's community college system require remedial instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic.

It's hard to imagine more stark evidence of failure. But the reality is worse, because more than a third of those who enter high school in New York City do not graduate in four years. If those who received diplomas are so poorly prepared, imagine how lacking in basic skills the dropouts must be.

New York spends more per pupil than does any other state. Teachers in New York City are paid more than are teachers in any other city, save Chicago.

By most measures, public schools in many other cities are worse.

There is little correlation between per pupil spending and student performance. In almost every state, per pupil spending is higher in urban districts -- where student performance ranges from poor to abysmal -- than in all but a handful of the wealthiest suburban districts.

There's a difference between requiring remedial work to meet the (modest) standards of community colleges and being "functionally illiterate" (A person whose skills in reading and writing are insufficient for ordinary practical needs.)

The National Adult Literacy Survey, conducted in 1993, found that 42 million American adults couldn't read; 50 million more could read only at a 4th or 5th grade level. The number of functionally illiterate adults was increasing by more than 43,000 a week.

When the survey was updated 10 years later, the U.S. Department of Education found that 47 million Americans were functionally illiterate. Their ranks were growing at the rate of 44,000 a week. Functional innumeracy -- having difficulty performing simple math skills -- appears to be even more widespread.

This can't be blamed on a paucity of resources. More of our tax dollars are spent on K-12 education than on anything else, save Medicare, Social Security and defense. We spend roughly twice as much on schools -- in dollars adjusted for inflation -- as we did in 1970.

We spend so much because we think nothing is more important for the future of our children and for the future of our country than a good education. For millenia, nothing has been more effective in lifting people out of poverty. Little has been more important in fostering economic growth.

We're not getting what we've been paying for. In absolute terms, the typical high school graduate knows less history, civics and math today than high school graduates did in 1970. In relative terms, we're falling further behind our international economic competitors. Ours is now the only major economy in the world where today's students will not be better educated than their parents were, said Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

What's important isn't the money wasted. It's the lives being crippled.

Only one in five young adults in the United States reaches a higher level of education than their parents, OECD statistics indicate. The ignorance of young people today is so prevalent and so pronounced that mocking it has become a staple of late-night comedians. But there is nothing funny about ignorance so massive it threatens the health of our economy and the viability of our democratic institutions.

Our schools cost so much, and our children learn so little because the system is designed to benefit the providers of education, not the children who need one, or the country. We can't fix this by tinkering around the edges, and there's no more time for gradual reform.

We face a national emergency so grave and so urgent only a Gordian knot solution will do. (According to legend, all who tried to unravel the intricate knot failed . . . until Alexander the Great cut it with his sword.) If our children, and our country, are to have a future, the entire politicized system must go. Now.

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Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. He can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476.


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