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Published: Sunday, 3/26/2000

U.S. students stymied by inexpert teachers

Three out of four employers and college professors who responded to a survey funded chiefly by Pew Charitable Trusts say today's high school graduates have just fair or poor skills in grammar and spelling.

No nation spends more per pupil than we do, but in only a handful of industrialized nations do students perform worse. Since 1983, more than 10 million Americans have reached the 12th grade without having learned to read at a basic level. More than 20 million reached their senior year without being able to do basic math, and nearly 25 million don't know the essentials of U.S. history.

The few states that have tried to impose minimum standards discovered public schools are worse than they feared. In Virginia, each school was supposed to have at least 70 per cent of its students pass state exams to keep accreditation. The requirement was waived after only 7 per cent passed. Arizona withdrew a math exam after 90 per cent flunked. In California, 88 per cent of public schools fell below the state target.

Despite this, a record 34.1 per cent of college freshmen responding to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA say they finished high school with a straight-A average. That's nearly three times the 12.5 per cent who said they got straight A's in 1969. But less than a third said they did as much as an hour's homework a night. Fewer than one in five had checked out a book from the school library in the preceding year.

Employers who responded to the Pew survey said high school graduates have become significantly less honest. In 1998, just 33 per cent of employers gave young people fair or poor marks in this area. This year, the figure jumped to 44 per cent. The grade inflation described above suggests kids are just following the example of their teachers.

Part of the reason for the poor performance of American students is structural. In the United States, the school year is 180 days long. This compares with 240 days in Japan, 222 days in Korea, 215 in Israel. Our school day also is shorter than in almost every other advanced country.

Another big problem is what is taught in the precious little time American kids spend in school. The Three R's largely have been supplanted by psychobabble.

But the major problem is the greed and incompetence of teachers and school administrators. Research indicates roughly a third of teachers are a credit to the profession and a blessing to children. Another third are nothing to write home about, but do little harm. The remaining third should be washing dishes or shoveling out stables instead of crippling the lives of our children.

In a study of SAT scores for 1996, professor Robert Strauss of Carnegie Mellon University found that education students had a combined score of 37.7 per cent, compared with 85.3 per cent for math majors, 80.9 per cent for liberal arts majors, 69 per cent for biology majors.

As long as teachers are drawn from the bottom of the college barrel, pay is divorced from performance, and mindless education courses repel the intelligent, student performance will suffer.

Prospective teachers should be required to earn degrees in real subjects. Students with good grades and/or high test scores should be paid signing bonuses. Massachusetts has such a program, and it's working well.

A prospective teacher should, after completion of the sophomore year, be required to spend a full year as a teaching assistant. The student would assist two teachers, and be evaluated by them and the school principal on the military green-amber-red system. Green means good to go. Amber means more work is required to meet standards. Red means don't let this person near children.

Two ambers or a red means the student should have to repeat the year in order to get certified. If the prospective teacher gets two reds, he or she should be handed a shovel and given directions to the nearest stable.

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau.



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