How to Boost ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT

By Rees, Nina Shokraii | USA TODAY, May 2000 | Go to article overview

How to Boost ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT


Rees, Nina Shokraii, USA TODAY


NEARLY 40% of America's fourth-graders read below the basic level on national tests. On international tests, the nation's 12th-graders rank last in advanced physics, compared with students in 18 other countries. One-third of all incoming college freshmen have to enroll in a remedial reading, writing, or mathematics class before taking regular courses. These numbers are even bleaker in the inner cities, where 58% of low-income fourth-graders nationally cannot read at a basic level.

If parents and educators had a thermometer with which to check the academic temperature of the nation, they would diagnose most areas as having a bad case of the flu and others as having a deadly fever. Education, however, is not like health care. What works in some schools and districts cannot be replicated easily in others, and while modern medicine has demonstrated a remarkable ability to act speedily in eradicating disease, public education has yet to demonstrate a similar capacity in resolving its problems. In no other professional field touching the lives of Americans is there so little sound research highlighting what works.

Even as the U.S. enters a new century, its education system continues to run much as it did at the beginning of the last century. This is a sobering reality for the children of the Information Age.

The nation's schools do not lack devoted and talented leaders, teachers, parents, students, or resources. The public school system is suffering because it is a monopoly and, like all monopolies, cannot change easily and quickly. To solve this problem, three themes should be focused on to reform the system:

All children, regardless of background, can learn. Many social scientists and education bureaucrats say that public schools do not perform well in inner cities because the students they serve come from disadvantaged and broken homes. These children, they claim, cannot be expected to perform at the same level as those in more affluent schools. Therefore, the bar is lowered; incompetent teachers are retained; and students are socially promoted even when they have not mastered basic skills.

This mindset is poisonous. It also is false considering the experiences of low-income and ethnic students at inner-city Catholic schools, and even some inner-city public schools, where income and background are proving not to be determinants of poor student performance. Setting the bar low and leaving students with poor teachers have far more adverse effects on America's students.

Parental choice and school autonomy are crucial to good education. The Constitution is silent on the issue of education governance, leaving all decision-making to the states and the people. Public schools are funded and regulated by different government entities, leaving little in the way of choice to the parents, teachers, and principals who are closest to the children. Meanwhile, successful schools tend to enjoy vast fiscal and legal autonomy and high levels of parental involvement.

One-size-fits-all solutions--especially those coming from Washington--make it harder for these schools to do what they do best. Giving parents choice and granting good principals more freedom and power in exchange for results is the best approach to improving academic outcomes. If the Federal government intervenes in state and local education, it must ensure that those closest to the students are empowered to find the best school setting--regardless of whether it is in a church basement or a local public school. This is especially important for poor students trapped in failing inner-city schools. School choice is an express ticket to a good education and the right fare for getting out of poverty.

Accountability is the key to reforming schools. States like Texas and North Carolina that boast high academic returns for the dollars they invest in their public schools have instituted healthy formulas for success. …

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