Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Panglossing Things over - or, Why Educators Can't Fix Education

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Panglossing Things over - or, Why Educators Can't Fix Education

Article excerpt

The theme song of several dozen captains of industry at the recent education "summit" in Palisades, N.Y., was that American schools must do a far better job of equipping their graduates with basic academic skills. Employers are ready to provide their people with job skills, said IBM's Louis Gerstner, whose company co-hosted the gathering of governors and business leaders. "What is killing us is having to teach them to read and to compute and to communicate and to think."

This executive suite lament is not new. What's changed is that in many firms the employment office is starting to practice what the boss preaches. At Chrysler, for example, candidates for production-line jobs must pass a reading and writing test before being seriously considered. Community organizations have sprung up in Detroit to equip inner-city residents with those core skills, skills they somehow made it through school, even received a diploma, without having acquired.

Outside the education establishment, almost everyone understands that most schools in the United States aren't producing the results for which we must be able to count on them. Thus the proliferation of nonschool, out-of-school, and after-school programs (and their electronic counterparts) that strive to make up for this massive system failure. Thus the surge of remedial courses at colleges. Thus economist Lester Thurow's recent observation that future US economic progress "has to start by ratcheting up the intensity of the American high school. The performance of the average American high-school graduate simply lags far behind that found in the rest of the industrial world."

The view from the inside

Pass through the looking glass into the bizarre world of the education profession, however, and we find a very different mind-set. There we learn that US schools are doing as good a job as ever, maybe even better, and are getting a bum rap for the inadequacies of families and communities; that a right-wing conspiracy seeks to weaken public education by criticizing it; that whatever may be less than perfect in today's schools can readily be healed by the application of cash; and that surely there's no reason to disrupt hoary practices and cozy relationships by trying any of those bizarre notions such as higher standards, accountability for results, school choice, contract management, charter schools, curbing teacher tenure, or paying educators for performance. On the contrary, the latest project among establishment groups like the National PTA is a series of community meetings designed to quell such heresies and kindle more public support for today's schools.

It's a world that other people find surreal. Yet the most popular book of the year among educators - and recipient of a recent prize from the American Educational Research Association - was "The Manufactured Crisis," which contends that, far from being "at risk" from any failings of our education system, US schools are fine and the public has been hoodwinked into thinking otherwise. This volume's co-author was cheered when he addressed the American Association of School Administrators this spring.

The media's whitewash

The media often repeat this nonsense without challenge. A few months back, The Washington Post editorial page carried an essay by one of education's most dogged Panglosses, claiming that today's students know more than ever. More recently, that same paper's Outlook section featured the assertion by Stanford's Robert Calfee and Cynthia Patrick that today's education "picture looks mighty bright. …

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