Friday, December 15, 2006

Here We Go Again! Another "Nation at Risk"

Last night while I was working in my room at school, I had the TV on and I flipped the channel to watch the CBS Evening News. Lucky me, I happened to catch this story that they called "All Children Left Behind."

CBS begins by telling us this: A bipartisan panel is warning that America's students are falling behind those in even some of the poorest countries, CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras reports. "I am really worried about where this country is," says ex-Sen. Bill Brock, a former Secretary of Labor. "We've got an information world, we're networked to the rest of the world, it's a global economy and we're not preparing our young people for that world."

Students from Asia to Europe outperform Americans on tests. Thirty years ago, the U.S. boasted 30 percent of the world's college students. That figure is now 14 percent. Meanwhile, most other industrialized nations educate their 16-year olds at a college level.

Emerging giants like India are churning out college graduates who often have more advanced skill sets than American graduates. Many go on to take U.S. jobs. "That is going to drive the standard of living down in the United States," says Commissioner Mark Tucker.

The commission recommends these sweeping changes in American education: Public schools would no longer be run by local districts. Instead, schools could be managed by groups of teachers or private companies. Teachers would need to pass rigorous assessments ... and be paid a lot more. All 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds would enroll in universal pre-K. Finally, high school students should be prepared to pass college-level board exams by age 16.

Okay, I'm not going to knock the concern expressed by this "Blue Ribbon" commission. I'm not even going to knock their recommendations for radical change in our educational system. But before we take them seriously, I think we are owed an explanation.

Twenty-three years ago we had another report from a "blue-ribbon" type commission on American education. That report was titled Nation at Risk, and it made what was a very insulting statement to those of us in public education: "If an unfriendly power had imposed our schools upon us, we would have regarded it as an act of war." "Our nation is at risk," the report stated. "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people."

I think it's fair to say that the situation described by Nation at Risk was not one which had occurred over night. After all, test scores were not significantly worse than they had been in the 1960s. And, although I wish I could say that this wasn't the case, our test scores are not significantly better now than they were when Nation at Risk was published. That's at least fifty years of "mediocrity" threatening our very future as a nation.

Yet, here we are in 2006. We have a four percent unemployment rate, while many of those nations who are hammering us in those educational test scores have double digit unemployment. As I sit here typing this, Shepard Smith of Fox News is announcing that the Dow Jones is at a record high--the stock market is as good as it's ever been. Last week, I handed out this current event item to my students making it clear that the United States is the richest country in the world. I think it's fair to say that according to the dire proclamations of Nation at Risk, this should be an impossibility.

So to those members of this year's "Blue Ribbon" commission, I ask these questions: Why did the implied predictions of Nation at Risk turn out to be so wrong? Why should we assume that your forecasts of gloom and doom will be any more accurate than those of that other "Blue Ribbon" commission?


Anonymous Rose said...

I believe that it doesn't matter what educators do, someone will have to pick us apart to advance their own political goals. Even if we were able, through and act of God or whoever, to bring every child up to the achievement level someone thinks we should, we would hear carping on how it was done, or how it should be done faster or whatever. None of those 'experts' has worked in a classroom in my school or one liek mine. None have ever tried to convince a child who is totally unconnected with learning and school by their family history, parents, or community, to change their mind and give learning a chance. We are society's scapegoats. Whine whine Whine but don't do anything constructive. If they would ask teachers in the classrooms, they could tell the 'experts' how to help the children however, we are always overlooked. We don't have credentials. Pathetic.

12/15/2006 8:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm horrible with numbers and even worse with figuring out statistics (good thing I teach English), but couldn't that part about college students (U.S. used to be 30%, now is 14%) mean several different things...
a.) There are now more college students in the world.
b.) There are more international students in colleges.
c.) Both of the above.
If either of those could be true, then wouldn't that negate that line of thinking as support for their argument?

12/16/2006 7:03 AM  
Anonymous steven said...

I hear educators whine a lot too, Rose. "We don't have enough money." "Everybody criticizes us." "The kids don't care." "The parents don't support us." I don't deny that teachers get dumped on, but education is a government enterprise, not a market enterprise. Parents don't have much meaningful choice in education for their children. The only way to get choice is to pay twice. So parents complain. Educators are always implying to parents that they know what is best for our children. Just about every attempt to give parents more choice is fought and rejected. Your unions put millions of dollars into fighting change, because it might diminish their power. So a lot of parents think: "Ok, you say you know what you are doing with MY children, and I don't have much to say about it. So you go and try to do your job, without my input, and I'll feel free to let you know what I think about how you do." Why should you expect anything else?

If my clients don't like the way I serve them, they are free to leave anytime and take their money to someone who they feel will serve them better. It's their choice entirely. That's the way most of us in the private sector operate. That's not the way it is in education. So you might as well accept the complaining.

12/16/2006 7:06 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rose, you sound so much like me that I want to assure people that I did not write your comment under an assumed name. In other words, "Amen!"

AT, do you mean to insinuate that CBS News (please pause while I genuflect) or any of the major media outlets (please pause while I genuflect again) would shamelessly slant their statistics in order to fit the agenda they're promoting? How could you think such a thing? I'm shocked! SHOCKED!

And there's the Steven that we've all grown to know and love(?)! Actually, Steven, if you are saying that parents have no say about the education that takes place in their public school districts, I can tell you this: You're not talking about my school district.

12/17/2006 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, I might just be implying that...hmm...I know that doesn't happen though, so we don't need to worry about that being the case.

And, Steven, I have to agree with Dennis. I don't know what district your children are in, but in my district the parents run the show. And even if that isn't the case in the district your children are in, you may know YOUR children better, but do you know the entire class that teacher has to deal with? Do you know the intricacies of each individual student? Because that's what that teacher has to take into consideration. Until a parent can accurately do that, then, no, they can't really judge what the teacher is doing in his/her classroom.

As for complaining about not having parent support, I remember when I was a child if I ever got in trouble at school, it was my fault. No questions asked. I was punished at school and at home. Nowadays, it's rarely ever the child's fault...nearly always the teacher's. I just don't understand how that happened. Do I think some teachers pick on their students? Yes, however, how is a student ever going to learn respect for an authority figure if the parents are constantly using authority figures as a scapegoat?? *Sorry, Dennis, I think I may've gotten off topic.*

12/17/2006 10:49 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

AT, sometimes getting a little off topic is what great comments are made of.

12/17/2006 11:49 AM  
Blogger Superdestroyer said...

To give public primary education any credit for the current state of the American economy is laughable. If you would visit any medical school, engineering school, or IT graduate program you will find mainly immigrants who were educated outside of the United States. Most middle class, public school educated college students cannot handle one semester in a technical field because the immigrants are so far ahead of them.

It would be better to say that the economy is going great despite the public schools instead of saying because of them.

12/18/2006 5:12 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Superdestroyer, try again. I have two sons who are now college graduates in technical fields, one of whom was a very average student in high school. The other one, who was a good student in high school, graduated Magna Cum Laude from Stetson University in Florida.

My wife and I are also very good friends with a young woman, born and raised in Minnesota, who just began attending medical school at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. My wife attended a gathering at her home last week where she met several of her classmates from the medical school. Amazing as it may seem to you, none of them were immigrants.

12/18/2006 5:27 AM  
Blogger Superdestroyer said...


I guess you did not learn the lesson that Anecdotal evidence is not evidence. The entering class at Harvard is over 20% Asian. In virtually all of the University of California systems the largest single group is Asian students.

I looked at a group of fourth year medical students who were wanting to be radiologist. There were very few that were born in the US. The average physicians lounge in a hospital these days is much more likely to have a Dr. Kim than a Dr Smith.

Look at Silicon Valley, it is dominated by Indian, Chinese, and other Asian immigrants. The white kids at places like Duke University major in economics and play sports. The Asian kids major in engineering, biochemistry, and computers science and study to get into graduate school.

Middle Class white kids want to be lawyers or stock brokers. It is the foreign educated immigrants who actually know how to build things and run operations. The public school educated middle class are the ones who fill up universities that have "state" and a direction in their name to become teachers, social workers, and government employees. Those are the groups that do nothing to add to the Dow Jones average or to create jobs.

12/18/2006 6:45 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

So, did you hand your students the findings of the blue ribbon commission as well, Dennis, or do I get to become irritating by saying you're propagandizing to your students?

I'm not sure about parents "running the show" -- what do you mean by that? I know that in NJ, lots of parents dislike TERC math (fuzzy math) but have been able to do nothing about it. It's certainly not parents who are responsible for the charter school caps in NY. And there is no "parent's union" in most places, but there is a highly politically active teacher's union. What meaningful choice in education are you talking about? I've certainly never gotten to select my child's curriculum, or teacher, or times or length of schooling, or class size, or use of discipline (where I'd be less restrictive than school policy, actually) or amount of time dedicated to any particular topic.

Dennis, if you're owed an explanation, shouldn't it be from the last panel, not this one? I find your sanguine reliance on items such as stock market performance rather disturbing. It's terrible social science.

23 years ago, the date of the Nation at Risk report, was 1983. A lot of factors go into our success as a nation, and a nation doesn't fall in a day. How long would you anticipate it taking before we saw economic difficulties? How do you know that we couldn't have been even better? Couldn't you see factors that held the US dominance in economic matters (i.e., internet, rise of computing technology) that might not be reproducible in the coming decades?

And, though you don't knock the recommendations, you might consider taking a real look at them. They involve:

1) paying teachers a lot more
2) attempting to ensure greater teacher competency
3) giving teachers more power to control education
4) encouraging greater enrollment in education from an earlier age
5) encouraging greater college enrollment

Parents do complain. They complain out of fear. Our children are in your hands, we can do little or nothing effective about it most of the time, and you have the stresses of dealing with 20 other children. I'm willing to bet that parents complain less than they might -- I know on several occasions I've bitten my tongue out of fear of backlash against my child. And these were about things that were quite clearly inappropriate.

Incidentally, AT, sympathies on the crude commenter on your blog. You are in the public eye and will get a certain share of idiots, but I'm willing to bet future insults will hurt a lot less.

12/18/2006 8:48 AM  
Anonymous steven said...

You beat me to it, CrypticLife (but I couldn't have said it as well as you did). Thanks!

Even if the government goes on funding education, meaningful choice in education would mean that all parents were able to take the money the government allocates to their children for education (average of $8,830 per child per year as of the 2000-2001 school year) and use it the manner that they so choose. This could include schools, private tutors, or even home schooling. It would be up to the parents to spend the money, not the government.

Dennis, did you read any of the comments to the CBS story you linked to in this post? Not everyone disagrees with my view concerning the role of government in education.

12/18/2006 9:40 AM  
Anonymous Rose said...

I find it interesting that the individuals who are the most critical of teachers and teaching have no experience except by virtue of being on the receiving end of education. I have had surgery, but would not know how to perform it on myself or another.
I also find your comment about dicipline, Crypticlife, facininating. I'd like to see you keep the attention and teach a group of 28 to 32 middle school students to proficiency without good dicipline in the classroom. I can imagaine just what it would look like an it wouldn't be pretty. I also believe you would not like your child to be placed in a chaotic dangerous learning enviroment. There is a reason for the rules, as I have observed through the year. They were created to fill a need, not because of some arbitrary whim.
I would imagine both you and Steven would check with a doctor about your child's illness, if needed. I find it interesting that most of the criticism that goes on about public education is by individuals who don't speak to teachers for their perspective. Diagnosing education this way is like using the latest Newsweek article to diagnose and treat cancer. You should always go to the expert, in this case the teachers.
You would use the $8,000 a year to educate your child. You would find tht this amount of money wouldn't ensure a good education. Check the SAT scores of Private schools. The students don't out perfom public school children.
The best way to ensure a good education for your child is to get involved with your child andd make sure that the child values education. Parents who do this and make sure their child works hard in school, behaves appropriately, is well fed and clothed and feels loved, have children who will do well. The child who feels that they don't have to work, that the world owes them something, or doesn't understand how important education is, won't. It's that simple. A teacher can only teach a child who is ready to learn. Teachers will perform amazing tricks of communication, and caring to create the willingness but the parent is the person who has the child most of the time and has the greatest impact on the child. Accept the responsibility, guys. It is really on your shoulders no matter how much you compain and moan.

12/18/2006 12:58 PM  
Anonymous steven said...


I'm not being critical of teachers. I'm being critical of the education system. Let's get that straight. I know a lot of teachers who are dedicated and professional. I know some that are not.

If I were going to use a doctor, I would have my choice of doctors. If I was not happy with the doctor I was seeing, I could choose another doctor anytime I wished, without having to continue to pay the first doctor. That's not how it works in education.

12/18/2006 1:12 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Thanks, Rose,

I have actually taught, though not in the public schools -- I taught test preparation and other classes for the Princeton Review, and taught computer classes for a large private computer training firm. That's somewhat different than education in public schools, of course. However, check the SAT scores of those who've taken the private SAT classes. Even given the statistical manipulation those firms will engage in, they're higher.

I'm guessing you may not have fully considered my post. I indicated I'd be LESS restrictive in what teachers could do to enforce discipline. And when you say "28 to 32 middle school students", do you not consider that one of my points is that I never get to choose that number? I might want middle school teachers to only have to deal with half that.

I'd add, also, that you're defining "success" in terms of this country's schooling. Many of the parents who are complaining aren't doing so because they're behind, but because they're ahead. My first-grade son has some difficulty paying attention in adding single-digit numbers, because he's already memorized his multiplication tables and is working on fractions at home. He also finds it difficult to accept teacher's statements like "You can't subtract 7 from 5", because he already knows about negative numbers. So-called "experts" in teaching developed the philosophy that keeps kids tied to their calculators, and results in things like verizon math. This doesn't give me a lot of confidence.

Doctors are experts not because of their field, but because of their results. People from all over the world come to the US to be treated by doctors here because they're recognized as the best in the world. They don't come here from any industrialized nation for the public schooling (contrasted to college-level education, which they DO come here for). Can you honestly show that US teachers have any expertise? Can you show me that, if you picked out any group of college graduates without training (but an interest in teaching), you'd get worse results?

12/18/2006 2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of the reason why Nation at Risk missed the mark is because the US economy is so dynamic that we have the ability to brain-drain the rest of the world of its intellectual capital--its smart people. Look at the list of Nobel prize winners in science--most either are American or now live in America. Nation tRisk did not accurately predict the effect of globalization.

The U.S. K-12 system has always functioned as a sorting machine. And, it continues to do so. The bright will learn, as they've always learned. The dull, on the other hand, do not have a fighting chance in our current system which is incapable of inducing sufficient learning in the left half of the curve.

The point is that the US is becomming a nation in which the educated, native born or immigrant, are economically pulling away from the uneducated and undereducated. The high paying jobs will require more skills and education. An education system stuck at 1970's performance levels isn't going to cut it.

12/18/2006 2:45 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Superdestroyer, I have the sneaking suspicion that no matter what it is, any evidence of mine will have little impact on you. My anecdotal evidence matters because I KNOW that public school graduates can do just fine in technical fields IF THAT IS WHAT THEY WANT to do. If they aren't in those fields, it isn't because they can't be, it's because they don't want to be. You make the point yourself when you say, “Middle Class white kids want to be lawyers or stock brokers.” There was a period after Watergate when they wanted to be investigative journalists. It wasn’t long ago that a lot of Americans were going into computer programming because they were told they would be set for life. But then those jobs started being outsourced to places like India, not because people there were better programmers, but because they worked a heck of a lot cheaper. Maybe that's part of the reason that young Americans are leery about going into fields like that today. I suspect that the Asians you refer to in California colleges are mostly Asian-Americans. If that’s the case, I don’t know why anyone would see a problem with that. I sure don’t. And finally, I obviously see a great deal more value in the work being done by social workers, teachers, and even (gasp!) government workers.

Crypticlife, most of your comments actually seemed more directed toward AT’s comments than my post, but I will try to answer some of what you said. You indicate that parents in your school district don’t have much say there. I do know that when parents have complaints in my district, they are listened to if they are at all reasonable, and often even when they are not. I am certain that many school districts around the country are like mine, but if you say your district is not, I’m not going to argue with you. You are there, and I am here.

Both you and Superdestroyer indicate that you think it’s unfair of me to relate our economic success to our public education system. I think you’re being unfair to pretend there is absolutely no connection. Regarding Crypticlife's time frame, as I said in my post, Nation at Risk wasn’t talking about a situation that had occurred overnight, so we are not just talking about 23 years here. And the implication was pretty clear: we were going to begin suffering economically. When our country was in a recession in the early nineties and Japan's economy was going great-guns, I remember watching a panel discussion on PBS, and the experts there attributed the difference to our respective education systems. Our economic problems were the result of our lousy education system, and Japan's success was the result of their superior one. But then after our economy recovered and recorded a record-breaking expansion, and Japan's economy went into the tank, I didn't hear "experts" comparing our educational systems anymore. I have no doubt, that if we were in a recession now, many of our critics would be laying the blame right at our feet. Obviously, there are many factors that go into our present economic success, but I don't know how someone can argue that our education system has absolutely nothing to do with it.

And Crypticlife, I have read the recommendations, and I'm actually pretty open-minded about them, but I think they are overrating the importance of salaries to people who are interested in going into education. I actually think that ending high school as we know it at tenth grade makes a lot of sense, but I suspect they'll have a tough time selling that one to the public.

Steven, I just want to make it clear I have never thought your ideas should be dismissed on the basis of how many people agree with you. As you know, I completely disagree with you, but I've enjoyed going back and forth with you about your ideas, and I think you do a good job articulating them. In fact, you have caused me to lose some sleep. I've got to discipline myself not to check my blog just before I go to bed.

And Rose--thank you!!! It's nice to have a little help on these things!!

12/18/2006 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I'm a little confused. Are you talking about the "Tough Choices Tough Times" report by NewCommission on the Skills of the American Workforce. I read that report and it seems to me you are either misquoting or didn't pick up some of the ideas completely. The idea of companies taking over school management from the local school board especially (although I will admit I liked that part the least.) The"companies" were limited liability companies (to prevent lawsuit problems) formed by the teachers themselves on bids to the local school board relieving the local board of most of the management problems. Since the board does a yearly review/rehire process they still have control on the local schools.
I teach in a Kansas middle school and I felt this report had more effective answers to the nation's education problems than the states' reactions to NCLB, which was the nation's reaction to the first report. As a manner of fact many of the solutions advocated by the commission reflect things I have been saying to other teachers for years.

1/06/2007 11:36 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi Floyd. Thanks for checking out my blog. The quotes that you are talking about come directly from the CBS story that I saw on the report. I copied them from the story that was posted on their Internet site.

As I've said in later comments and posts, there are specific recommendations the commission made that I would have trouble arguing against. What I object to is the very negative portrayal of the job we are doing now. That was certainly the case with the story presented on CBS.

1/07/2007 1:28 PM  

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