Are our public schools failing us?

Carrie Chin
Advertising Manager

Although it has been six long years since I attended the week-long U.S. Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama, I can still remember the motto which graced the cover of the program binder: Through these doors walk the future scientists, educators, and leaders of America.

Unfortunately, the numbers tell otherwise. Consider the following:

--A federally-funded study released in 1990 showed that only 42% of U.S. high-school juniors could read at what was termed an "adept" level, and only 4.8% could read at an "advanced" level.

--The same study revealed that 68% of those students could prepare an "adequate" job application listing their qualifications; 28% were able to write an "adequate" letter to a senator in support of funding for the space program.

--Three out of four Americans today cannot locate the United States on a map of the world.

School systems throughout the nation report mediocre or falling scores on national aptitude tests. Minor gains are greeted with celebration that something, at last, is working.

Is it? At my alma mater, Parkview High School in Lilburn, the changes I have observed in the last couple of years cannot be ignored. My former teachers tell of the students they must deal with every day. The foundations - basic math, science, social studies, and English skills - aren't there, they say. And that's why these pupils find themselves scraping once they hit the challenging courses. Moreover, students arrive in class unwilling to learn. Discipline rates have risen, as have reports of school violence.

Where are our schools going wrong? It's tough to point the finger at any one cause. Lack of funds, overcrowding, and mismanagement are some of the culprits. So is a general lowering of the attention span, thanks to television and video games. The degradation of the American family has also produced unruly students who require more of the teacher's attention and take away valuable instructional time.

The rapid rise of technology in an increasingly global society has shown us just how precarious our situation is. Our students rank lower in all academic areas compared to their overseas counterparts. This nation will find itself at the back of the pack if its public education system continues to produce individuals who can't do anything more complicated than balancing a checkbook.

So what can be done? Some of the current remedies have given us more problems than solutions:

Increase school funding. Florida tried this by instituting a statewide lottery in 1988. Although it has generated some $850 million each year, the results have hardly been satisfying. Conditions are actually worsening in the Sunshine State's classrooms. Georgia's lottery has netted hundreds of millions of dollars for this state's educators, but aside from the HOPE Grant (which students frequently lose by failing to maintain a 3.0 GPA), the most visible sign of the lottery's windfall has been the purchase of "toys"--namely, computers, laboratory equipment, closed-circuit television systems, and the like. Toys are nice, but educators and administrators are deluding themselves if they think that the latest Power Mac is the key to boosting a student's performance.

Revamp the curriculum. Thus the rise of alternative teaching methods such as Outcomes-Based Education (proposed in Gwinnett County a couple of years ago, but quickly sent out the door), year-round schooling, and even the outright abolition of the gifted program. The amount of parental and educator resistance to these and other ideas is staggering. Change frightens people.

Turn the schools over to private management. Privatization has, at best, met with mixed results. School administrators in Baltimore, Hartford, Conn., and Dade County, Fla., have taken a crack at improving their schools in this way. Although the quality of school facilities and student morale have generally improved, the promise of improved test scores has not materialized. Dade County's administrators have already fired their contractor; Baltimore's schools are on the way to doing the same. The general consensus is that when profit takes precedence over learning, the students suffer.

There are some bright spots on the horizon. Among them is the pre-kindergarten program, which aims to prepare young children for formal schooling. With luck, this program will improve a child's readiness and willingness to learn.

School-choice programs, which allow parents to send their children to the schools of their choosing, will benefit the students and challenge school administrators to improve their methods or lose pupils to better schools.

In his State of the Union message last year, President Clinton said, "We must set tough world-class academic and occupational standards for all our children, and give our teachers and students the tools they need to meet them." If we are to make good on these commitments, then we must act now to save our schools.


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Copyright © 1995 by Stephanie L. Goff, Editor and by the Student Publications Board