Jack Kelly: Cheating our kids

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America has problems more urgent than our dreadful schools, but none more dangerous. Little contributes more to high unemployment, rising income inequality, poverty and violent crime.

Thirty-two million adults — 14 percent of the population, 19 percent of high school graduates — can’t read, according to a study last year by the U.S. Department of Education.

The literacy rate is no better than it was in 2003; is worse than in 1993. Of the students who come to his classroom, “only a small fraction have a functioning understanding of written English,” said a high school teacher in Oakland, Calif., in 2007. “They do not know how to form a sentence. They cannot write an intelligible paragraph.”

Even more struggle to make change or balance a checkbook.

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” said Thomas Jefferson. But many members of Generations X and Y lack the basic knowledge to fulfill their duties as citizens.

• Half of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed by the National Geographic Society in 2006 couldn’t find New York State on a map.

• In a 2009 survey of high school students in Oklahoma, only 28 percent knew the Constitution is the supreme law of the land; just 27 percent could name the two houses of Congress.

• Just 52 percent of adults and 38 percent of high school students in a 1999 survey knew what the stock market does. Only a third of adults and 20 percent of students understood how inflation works.

• The literacy rate in Massachusetts was higher in 1798 than it is now, according to historian David McCulloch. In 1900, only 10.7 percent of Americans were functionally illiterate.

Massive ignorance of what every American should know is a recent phenomenon. To graduate from the eighth grade in Bullitt County, Ky., in 1912, students had to answer questions like these: “define latitude and longitude; name and give the capitals of the states touching the Ohio river; describe the function of the liver; give the cause of the war of 1812 and name an important battle during that war.”

IQ scores have risen substantially in the last 100 years. So why are so many young people today dumber than rocks?

It isn’t for lack of resources. Measured in constant 2001 dollars, per-pupil spending in public schools doubled between 1945 and 1956; doubled again by 1970; doubled a third time by 2002. Per-pupil spending was $11,184 in 2009-2010.

Test scores have been flat since 1970. We’ve lost ground to international competitors, ranking near the bottom in math and science.

This is much worse than a tragic misallocation of resources. Ponder the fact that nearly one high school graduate in five is functionally illiterate. Could there be a more egregious — or more pernicious — example of fraud?

The fraudsters — Democratic politicians, teacher unions, educrats — have done more harm than those engaged in other types of organized crime. Worse than the money stolen are the lives ruined.

Education used to be the express train to upward mobility. No longer. Inner-city schools are our most expensive, and our worst. Of high school graduates in 2011, only 13 percent of blacks and 4 percent of Hispanics were proficient at reading, according to a Harvard study. Nearly half of minority students drop out without getting a diploma.

It isn’t because they are black or Hispanic that these children aren’t learning, Marva Collins has proved in Chicago and Jaime Escalante has proved in east LA. Many of the teachers and administrators who aren’t teaching them what they need to know have six-figure compensation packages.

“It is in cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia where the largest numbers of children cannot read, write and compute at acceptable levels and where racial gaps between whites and blacks and Latinos are widest,” wrote Lydia Segal in her book on corruption in America’s public schools. “It is in large cities that minority boys in particular, trapped in poor schools, have the greatest chance of flunking out and getting sucked into the downward spiral of crime and prison.”

Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Democrats would rather cheat than help these kids.

Schools will go from bad to worse at ever greater expense until we take control of how education dollars are spent from the fraudsters and give it to parents.

Some parents will make bad choices. But no parent will make choices worse than the fraudsters have made.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

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