NBC created an educational forum, Education Nation, that kicked off over the weekend with a gripe session by American teachers.
The calls to alarm in the United States focus primarily on declining world rankings in student performance, particularly in science and math, and declining high school graduation rates, particularly for minorities.
The word most often used by U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan and other leaders inside and out the educational world to describe these trends is "unacceptable." What does that mean? If this state of affairs is so "unacceptable," how did it come to be?
The solutions proposed: more testing of students and teachers, resulting in more failing grades and removal of underperforming instructors; highlighting and rewarding better-performing schools; more educational choice, now focussing on charter schools; elimination of teachers unions, tenure, automatic pay raises.
Of course, all of the policies under attack have, at least in the past, been welcomed as pro-education: paying and treating teachers better; supporting public education by refusing to divert resources to educational alternatives; eliminating rote learning directed solely to improving test scores.
Keep in mind that calls for educational reformation and improvement are a constant in American public policy - remember when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, spurring a national outcry to improve science education? Fifty years later the United States has drifted into the third tier of nations internationally in science and math. Unacceptable!
Meanwhile, four of the Republican candidates for president in 2008 refused to believe in evolution, which remains true of many prominent figures in the party today. Christine O'Donnell - the Republican candidate for the Senate from Delaware - questioned evolution on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" by asking, "Why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans today?" (One thinks of the flying monkey troops in "The Wizard of Oz.")
Ms. O'Donnell has a religious hang-up reminiscent of the cult classic, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"; she is preoccupied with human transformation into other life forms. Witness her famous pronouncement to Bill O'Reilly: "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains." O'Reilly, a former teacher, who often calls for improving American education, didn't find this comment peculiar.
Does this exclude O'Donnell from running for the Senate, or fellow Republicans Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin from being presidential hopefuls? Hell no! Their beliefs are not only acceptable to many people, but desirable. Americans seek - yearn - to be more spiritual (read as "stupider"). More Americans want a return to prayer in the schools and to teach creation "science" there than want better science education.
In 2008, the Washington Times headlined the following survey result:
"Half of all Americans believe they are protected by guardian angels, one-fifth say they've heard God speak to them, one-quarter say they have witnessed miraculous healings, 16 percent say they've received one and 8 percent say they pray in tongues."
But the newspaper was not rueing these results; the article rather acclaimed them as a retort to the "much-ballyhooed new atheism.” In other words, it was part of the spiritual reawakening in the country. If Arnie Duncan called this "unaccaptable," he - as well as his boss, the President - would be looking for jobs.
Here are the five things that would actually create better-educated, smarter Americans: more atheists; less reliance on electronic entertainments (ironic that NBC is spearheading educational improvement, isn't it?); economic equality - which has steadily worsened since the 1980s - since poorer Americans are the most superstitious and least well-educated; fewer movies like the Twilight series and oh, so many other books and movies focusing on the supernatural, reincarnation, and angels and spirits; fewer television shows - including Oprah - that blur the distinction between actual and magical causality.
None of these things is going to happen. None is discussed as a part of educational reform. No one dares take them on - not even Superman could fight both Sarah Palin and Oprah Winfrey.
We live in America - land of the irrational, of the electronically addicted, of the growing chasm in wealth and education. This is not only acceptable - we're proud of it. Why do we keep insisting we want to be better educated?
Further notes on the discuussion:
The five panelists on The View discussed evolution - two indicated they didn't accept it. One explained, "They've been looking for a missing link. They found Lucy, and decided she was the missing link - now they've rejected that." In other words, the scientific method proves - there is no evolution! This segment was followed by an obligatory one on education in which New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was interviewed. He made no comment on the evolution discussion - why ruin the good feeling? Instead, he confidently issued the standard list of recommendations to improve schools - not noting last week's New York Times headline (September 23), "City Reports Nearly Fivefold Increase in Students Repeating a Grade."
Klein touted the $100 million gift to the Newark city schools from Mark Zuckerberg - Facebook's founder. Meanwhile, MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell interviewed District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Mitchell pointed out that DC spends more per capita on students than any other school district in the country, and that it has the worst results. Rhee answered, "We've proven that throwing money at the problem is a waste - the system is broken and needs to be fixed." The plummeting performance of American schools has occurred in a period of accelerating school budgets. The newest calls to action are coming when school budgets are being slashed radically - although results could hardly be much worse.
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