Last week I wrote about the obvious failures and less obvious successes of our public schools.
On the one hand, too many students are sliding through school with little to show for their time in the classroom.
On the other hand, many students are getting first-class educations at excellent public schools. And we've set ourselves the impossible task of keeping more and more children in school and trying to get all of them up to national educational standards. When people say our schools are failing, they're usually pointing at students who wouldn't have been anywhere near the classroom a few decades ago.
In today's world, we don't have the option of telling more students to drop out. Most jobs available to undereducated adults pay minimum wage. So the question facing us is, how do we raise the level of achievement for all students?
I wish I had a simple answer. But 30 years in the classroom and countless hours reading about and discussing educational issues have convinced me, there are no simple answers. I'm also convinced, people who claim to have "the answer" are either deluding themselves or they're snake oil salesmen hoping to make financial or political hay from selling their ideas to a public desperate for solutions.
Let's look at a few of the overly simplistic "answers" from people who claim to know how to improve our children's educations.
The "answer" we hear most often these days is "school choice." Depending on who is using the term, it means anything from more charter schools to vouchers for anyone who wants to attend a private school.
It's a seductive idea. "If public schools aren't doing the job, let's give it to someone who can." The problem is, there's no evidence charters or private schools as a whole do a better job educating children than traditional public schools.
The Bush administration's Department of Education commissioned a study to see if charters and private schools are more successful than traditional public schools. The study concluded, when you compare similar students in the three types of schools, their achievement on standardized tests is pretty much the same.
Another "answer" is that we make our schools more like those in other countries where students top ours on international achievement tests.
One country often mentioned as an educational model is Korea, where students test far higher than students here. So let's take a look into their schools.
High stakes tests are an obsession in Korea. We sometimes complain our schools focus too much on testing, but in Korea, the classrooms are test prep pressure cookers. Their junior and senior years are known as "examination hell." Beyond their long school days, students spend about seven hours a week going to high-priced tutors who specialize in raising test scores (which makes me wonder, if the schools are so good, why do students need all the extra help?). Test day is so intense, businesses open late so students don't encounter traffic driving to their tests, airplanes don't take off or land during testing hours to minimize noise, and parents cram into temples and churches to pray for their children's success.
Some Korean mothers are so concerned about the psychological harm done to their children by the intense pressure, they move with their children, often to the U.S. and New Zealand, leaving their husbands behind working day and night to support a second home in a foreign country.
Which brings us to another reason Korean schools are so successful. Families treasure nothing more than their children's educations. Don't forget, Korean-American students excel in our "failing" public schools and attend our finest universities in numbers far greater than their population size. The culture's emphasis on education is as important to their children's success as the specific schools they attend.
Next time, I'll look at some of the reasonable but difficult and imperfect ways we can improve our children's educations.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.