Exclusive: An Open Letter to the New Secretary of Education (Part 2 of 2) Rita Kramer

by RITA KRAMER January 27, 2009
Click here for Part One
A report released in June 2008 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute on the results of the No Child Left Behind federal legislation found that while the bottom 10% of students have made gains in recent years, in the top 10% the gains have been minimal. It reported that bright students were languishing to fend for themselves for lack of attention while classroom time and resources are shifted to bringing the bottom up. The National Association for Gifted Children in turn has repeatedly warned we were shortchanging gifted students, whose needs go unmet, jeopardizing the nation’s future. “Especially alarming,” adds the NAGC, “are findings that our nation’s teachers do not consider themselves prepared to meet the learning needs of gifted students.” Small wonder, when the system is geared to minimizing the distance between high- and low-achievers by whatever means are necessary, including lowering standards for grades and for graduation. And with the preponderance of teachers coming out of education schools and colleges that are often little more than diploma mills, with no significant subject knowledge and a mission oriented more toward “fairness” and “diversity” than to learning.
According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, too many teachers-in-training are unprepared to do the job they are hired for. One example: Only ten of 77 schools surveyed did an “adequate” job of preparing aspiring math teachers. “Low expectations and standards…insufficient grounding in algebra, and inability to agree on what math teachers should know” [geometry or social change?] “are effectively crippling elementary math teacher preparation.” Add pressure from teachers’ unions to protect ineffectual teachers and prevent the hiring of uncertified recent college graduates and mid-life career changers, and the most that can be hoped for is to “equalize” by producing at best a mediocre middle.
We are failing to educate an informed citizenry, an efficient workforce, or a people proud of their nation’s special character. Unable to articulate its worth, unaware of its gifts to them, how can the coming generations be expected to defend it?
Some point to the potential of charter schools and vouchers as escape routes from the tyranny of the public schools. Yet in the short run there is no way of knowing what exactly is being taught or how in the various alternative schools being created around the country or in the schools for which parents may use vouchers to transfer from one site of failure or mediocrity they can perceive to one they are not necessarily equipped to assess. Other parents who can afford it abandon the public schools entirely for home schooling or private schools and academies which offer more rigorous learning environments. But increasingly, private schools are an option for the most affluent. An historic path for educating the children of the less well-to-do, the parochial school system, (primarily but not exclusively Catholic) is dwindling, a result of many factors including higher teacher salaries, diminished Church resources, and demographic shifts. 
What does all this mean, for the nation – if indeed we are still one nation, indivisible – and for its families? The degradation of the schools has not come about because the educational agenda has become political – the schools have always been political in the sense that they have endeavored to shape citizens for this country. It is that the political agenda was once preservative whereas it has become subversive. Children are no longer taught civic pride in American democracy, they are taught to identify themselves as members of groups short-changed by that system and under obligation to turn it around. And if class war and race war and ethnic war are encouraged, even in attenuated form, we will shatter as a society and become like the Balkan states, forever at each others’ throats.
What does a government owe its citizens and what do they owe the polity?
The answer to both questions lies in the mutual acceptance of a coherent set of beliefs – and for as long as the States have been the United States that has meant what have come to be called middle-class values. I would venture to guess that most Americans still adhere to those values – individual responsibility for one’s life and fate being primary among them. And I would also venture to state, based on anecdotal but widespread evidence, that most American parents really do not know what goes on their children’s schools. If the children seem happy, bring home good grades, and appear to be on a par with their neighbors and schoolmates, parents, busy as they are with earning a living and coping with the various aspects of adulthood, see no reason for concern.
How do we balance the requirements of the nation with the needs of the individual and the family? Mr. Secretary, you arrive at a moment when change is in the air. Here are some suggestions for pursuing the goal of leaving our schools in better condition than you found them.
First, why not a national curriculum designed to say what knowledge and what skills children should be expected to be able to demonstrate at every grade level. Educators including E.D. Hirsch have explained how subject matter could be integrated into the teaching of reading so that students are not robbed of substantive learning in order to pass tests designed to justify the efforts of teachers and school officials. His proposal, now in place in some schools dotted around the country, is that instead of testing children on trivial and boring passages in basal readers constructed for that purpose, they learn to read in a cumulative sequence, starting in the earliest grades, about the history of our country, the lives of great men and women, the poems and stories that make up our common culture. His argument is that not only would children be more motivated to understand what they are reading because of its intrinsic interest, but the gap between the disadvantaged and the more practiced would narrow as children from reading-impoverished and language-barren homes would be given the chance to catch up with the background knowledge and vocabulary that would put them on a more equal footing. A national system of tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, designed and administered by a group of non-partisan educators (not politicians, no mayors or their political appointees anointed as “chancellors”), would determine, at the end of each school years, whether the national standards for comprehension and subject matter have been met no matter in what way and by what methods.                              
It is that qualification that ensures the independence of the schools and the freedom of parents to choose the learning environment they want for their children while at the same time protecting the right of the government to expect a degree of literacy and numerical skills and a fund of knowledge about the country, the origins and characteristics of its institutions, and would also put American children on a more competitive level with children in other countries in an increasingly complex and globalized world.
However, even assuming it politically feasible to institute a standard national curriculum and a trustworthy set of tests for making sure it is working, there remains a stumbling block to that or any system based purely on ability and accomplishment. It is an attitude by now so ingrained in all of us that I am uncomfortable suggesting it. It goes directly to the belief we have all imbibed over the last couple of generations, which is that everyone is entitled to happiness. Not to its pursuit but to the thing itself. We have confused equality before the law with equality in life and denied the inconvenient reality that there are differences between individuals in characteristics of various kinds, differences in capacities and ambitions that make it impossible to achieve equal outcomes for all unless we are willing to legislate what those outcomes must be. Grouping by ability, we are told, is unfair.
Today any kind of difference in outcome is considered unacceptable, the result of discrimination. In 2007 a high school in Maplewood, New Jersey made news when it was charged that, since blacks outnumbered whites in the school population, the fact that whites outnumbered blacks in advanced classes was proof of racial bias. School officials set about deciding “how to strike a balance between their two main goals – celebrating diversity and pushing academic achievement.” It did not seem to occur to the district officialsthat these two goals might simply not be compatible. One has to do with the schools’ traditional functions of teaching and learning, the other with the schools’ redefinition as agencies of social change. It is not enough that all students be given equal opportunities to use their individual abilities; all students have to have equal outcomes. Anything less is evidence of what a student protestor at a confrontation just short of a riot called “contemporary segregation.”
As a result of the confrontation, student leaders and administrators were said to be discussing “ways to narrow the so-called achievement gap; like granting students more say in which level they are in.” Administrators were tasked with ensuring that the racial makeup of advanced placement classes better reflected the racial makeup of the school, made up not according to demonstrated ability but open to everyone who would like to be in them. The next step, of course, is to make sure that in the interests of fairness the advanced class work is not too difficult for anyone in the diverse class. That would be unfair. So the next step is to water down the curriculum so that no one is discriminated against because the work is too hard. Which leaves us with the question of where the next generation of scholars and innovators will come from? And who will be left who knows the difference?
And so we conform to the piety that says all children are eager to learn and capable of doing so, that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of demonstrated interests and abilities, elitist to offer an enriched academic program to those who can deal with it easily while permitting others to choose less intellectually demanding training for other kinds of lives, even if we leave openings and opportunities all along the way for movement between what have come to be called “tracks.” One result of the insistence on legislated equality of minds is the lowering of standards to accommodate everyone; in some classrooms it is the presence of youngsters who are clocking time at best, and in worst cases are disrupting the efforts of others to teach and to learn.
Some of these students, once they are equipped with the skills and basic knowledge the elementary years should provide, might choose to go on with a schooling they found more compatible with their interests and abilities. They might also make valuable contributions in the scientific competition with countries like Russia and China. Students in an automotive technology class in a Detroit high school recently devised a way of converting cooking oil from a nearby tortilla factory into biodiesel fuel to run the district’s buses. The school’s superintendent says, “We have a lot of students good at solving puzzles, diagnosing problems, coming up with creative solutions, working with their hands, and taking things apart to find out how to make them work better.” We should be providing more such opportunities for more such young people.
We are, instead, creating a class of dropouts not interested in what school as presently organized has to offer them, while at the same time depriving the students capable of forging ahead in math, in science, in as yet uninvented kinds of learning, because it is unfair to define anyone as more “gifted” than anyone else. Until we can go beyond the egalitarianism that demands the same thing for everyone on the basis that everyone is the same and denies the individual differences so apparent to common sense if not to political utopianism, we will never have the kind of republic of learning, the schoolhouse on a hill, that the country needs and that most parents, if encouraged to think about it, would want for their children.
That is the sort of statement, along with the proposals that it implies, that constitutes heresy in the world of American education today. But as long as we continue to adhere to across-the-board equality of outcomes for all children regardless of individual differences; to the maintenance of racial/ethnic diversity (read: quotas) in classrooms and among faculty and administrators; and to a definition of education that holds the school responsible for providing services more appropriate for the psychiatrist, the social worker, and the policeman; as long as we fail to redefine the classroom as a place designed for each individual to acquire knowledge and skills at the highest level he or she is capable of attaining, we will continue to cheat our citizens, their children and the country. 
With high hopes for change under your guidance,
Rita Kramer
FamilySecurityMatters.org  Contributing Editor Rita Kramer is an author and freelance writer.  She has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Partisan Review, Commentary, City Journal, and numerous other publications in the U.S. and abroad.  Her books include Maria Montessori: A Biography, In Defense of the Family: Raising Children in America. Today, At ATender Age: Violent Youth and Juvenile Justice, and Ed School Follies:The Miseducation of America's Teachers.

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