By LES STEIN
There is a subtle but unmistakable movement, headed by a select group of educators and policy makers, which argues that the decline of our nation’s K-12 schools is a myth at best and a downright lie at worst. More important, the people associated with this misguided movement are trying to convince us that American schools are better today than ever before and that students are making acceptable academic progress. In other words, they claim that modern day presidents, educators, business leaders, and other influential members of society have been promoting unnecessary fear about the declining quality of our nation’s public schools.
A review of the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as the nation’s report card, certainly shows that some progress has been made since the first tests were administered some 40 years ago. The longitudinal comparisons over this time period, for 4th and 8th graders, should make us cautiously optimistic, but the results are by no means significant, and there is no reason to declare victory. For one thing, the same report shows that little or no progress has been made for any of the grade levels between 2008 and 2012. In the meantime, results for the 17-year-old age group is abysmal. According NAEP’s official web site for 2012, titled, Trends in Academic Progress, “average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year.” In other words, our high school graduates were no better qualified to attend college in 2013 than they were in 1974. In part, this may explain why so many of our two- and four-year colleges and universities have been complaining about the academic preparedness of their freshman classes.
The continuing debate about our nation’s public schools needs to be conducted far more professionally than it has been in the past half century. We should have realized long ago that making public school education a political issue is not in our nation’s best interest. At the same time, however, the discussion also needs to be conducted with fewer accusations and less finger pointing. First and foremost, we need to gain a clear understanding of how our nation’s school should be evaluated. The current system is not only too complex and convoluted, but it is also unrealistic. The Common Core State Standards could provide an opportunity for leveling the educational playing field if they’re implemented properly and if their results are evaluated and reported without bias. Second, we need to establish and maintain clear, respectful, and open lines of communications about the health of our nation’s public schools. Blaming our education problems on conservatives who support business and industry or liberals who seek more money for educating underprivileged students isn’t doing us any good — as a matter of fact, it is making things far worse. Last, we need to take politics out of education — a tall order.