A moral crisis, not a money crisis

Want to know how to push American kids back to the top of the education ladder? A leading educator has an agenda for teachers and parents.
Kevin Ryan | Dec 13 2010 | comment  


The news is out! The Chinese educational system is not, as was supposed in many quarters, simply producing unimaginative, rote learners to feed their burgeoning low-tech factories. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) recently released the 2009 test results in which the 15-year-old students from 65 nations competed in knowledge of math, science and reading. This was the first year that Chinese authorities allowed their students to compete, and they burst out of the gate with stellar results, coming out on top in all categories: math, reading and science.

The 5,100 Chinese students taking the test were not representative of China as a whole, but rather were selected from the 20 million city of Shanghai, the academic and industrial hub of the nation. China’s neighbors and trading partners around the world will probably take some comfort from the thought that the rest of the Chinese teenagers are probably not up to the standards of the Shanghai youngsters. It is doubtful in the extreme, however, that a representative of US teenagers from our major cities, say New York, Los Angeles and, oh, yes, the nation’s capital would come close to the Chinese results.

But how well did US students do? Short answer: mired in the middle. Of the 65 nations whose students took the PISA tests, US 15 year-olds were 23rd in science; 24th in math; and 17th in reading. This US performance was consistent with previous PISA results. Not disgraceful, but hardly the stuff required of a nation hoping to maintain world leadership in science, technology and trade.

If brain power is the coin of the “New World Order”, two facts should deepen the US’s gloom about its mediocre academic performance. One, there are 3-plus Chinese brains for every one US brain ready to go to work. Two, the Chinese are just beginning their educational growth spurt.

The implications of the apparent superiority of the Chinese educational system will not be lost on educators, policy-makers and politicians in the West. In the US, the heavy breathing has already begun. The New York Times has quoted President Obama as calling for a Sputnik-like effort and an increased investment in math and science education since “America is in danger of falling behind”. (Memo to the President: the US is already behind!) Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan’s response was more present-oriented: “We can quibble [with the results], or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

And so the campaign to again waken the sleeping giant of American education is on. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other leading newspapers are on the case. Can special issues of Time and Newsweek be far behind? “US Dunces Flunk Again!!” and “China’s Education Missile is Aimed at US” The Education Lobby, fueled by the teachers’ unions and grant-starved academics, can look afresh to Washington and the foundation world to “bridge this dangerous education gap.” Once more we will be treated to the old refrain of “send us the money and we’ll solve the problem.” And once more, throwing money at our schools will not work.

It goes without saying that that a good education has costs attached. The problem with the American schools, however, is not money. We already spend substantially more money per pupil than our trading partner nations. In 2009-2010 the National Education Association acknowledged that the country’s per pupil expenditure average was US$10,306. The most lavishly supported school district in the nation is Washington, DC schools and they have the worst results. Estimates of DC’s yearly per pupil costs vary from $18,275 to $28,169! In contrast, the state of Utah, which relatively speaking has high achieving pupils, spent $6,095, less than one third of that spent on DC’s pupils.

Spending more money on US schools won’t solve the problem and will distract from addressing the larger problem of our schools, the character-corrupting culture in which we are bring up our children.

A culture of softness and laziness

Out of “the-goodness-of-our-hearts” and emanating from a total lack of historical perspective and of understanding of human nature, Americans have designed a disaster. They have put in place a system of getting children ready for adult life that dooms them and the nation’s future to mediocrity or worse. In a little more than a century, the US has moved from a “work hard and survive” world to a “bread and circuses” world. We have gone from a culture where real demands were made on students at home and in school to one where homes and schools make only the mildest demands on children. Instead adults have become eager providers of their children’s natural, but endless, appetite for pleasure.

Whether in comfortable suburbs or urban tenements, young Americans have become hooked on pleasure. They watch on average four and a half hours of television a day, and spend endless minutes and hours in idle conversation with peers through cell phones and social networking. Except for the top 15 percent of serious students, the schools leave students to their pleasures, making few demands on their time or mental energies. School has become a place where you meet your friends rather than a place for serious work. Home is merely a place for rest, entertainment and fueling.

And then there is sex, an issue that is much on the minds of young people, but typically dodged by teachers and parents. How does a teenager focus on a quadratic equation when the most lurid pornography is just a few mouse clicks away or an actual sexual encounter is easily within reach? While parents and school officials don’t like to acknowledge it, close to half (48 percent) of American high school students “report” that before graduating they have become sexually active (50 percent of males and 46 percent of females). One of the results of their recreational sex (besides the highest teen birthrate in the First World!) is that an estimated 9 million Americans ages 15–24 are newly infected with an STD each year, with chlamydia and gonorrhea being the most commonly acquired diseases.

Another striking indication of the increasing moral corruption of schools is the rising incidences of cheating. In 1992, 61 percent of American students “admitted” to cheating on an exam during that school year. By 2002, the percentage had risen to 74 percent. In that same period, 1992 to 2002, the percentage of students who admitted lying to a teacher during the past year increased from 69 percent to 83 percent.

The point is not that kids are rotten and teachers are lazy and parents are idiots. Rather, that we have created the wrong child-raising culture and the results are clearly confirming that. Trying is change this culture will be like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier steaming though the ocean at 30 knots. The captain can swing the steering wheel for a radical change, but it takes about two miles before the ship actually makes the course change. Even if a majority were to reject the current cultural course and demand change, it will take years for true change to come about. Meanwhile the commercial interests, daily getting fatter off the corruption of our children, will dig in and fight reformers with everything at their disposal. That said, here are a few suggestions toward a healthier school climate and educational system for those who want to get started.

An agenda for teachers and parents

First, break the monopoly of the public school system. Give parents back their tax money so they purchase the education they believe is best for their children, whether secular private, religious, internet-delivered, home schooled or even old PS 22. Free up the system, but make the results highly transparent.

Second, change the “work environment” and change our expectations of students. Extend the school day until 5 in the afternoon as so many other countries do. Extend the school year from 180 days to closer to 240. Without giving into the empty slogan “education should be fun!”, make schooling more interesting and connected to their futures. Currently in the US, teachers and students are obsessed with the results of paper and pencil objective tests on reading, and math, an obsession which has blocked out time previously devoted to art, literature, geography, history, music and physical education. It is little wonder that students are seeking escapes and the educational enterprise is so dispirited! The drill, drill, drill and test, test, test approach is killing teachers and students alike.

Third, use school-parent contracts to get a new set of student expectations in place. For instance, parents should be “under contract” to provide a quiet, media free study place for their children. They should strictly limit time and exposure to TV, to the internet and social networking and anything that interferes with their children developing the knowledge and the work habits the future will demand of them.

Fourth, re-empower teachers to be character educators. Instead of the current model of teacher-as-information-dispenser, teacher should be prepared and expected aggressively to teach children the good habits or virtues we know constitute a worthy life, that is, habits of responsibility, self-discipline, justice and respect for others. Educators should recapture the tradition of teachers being in loco parentis. If some students are unable to accommodate the new, more serious school environment, removed them to other, more structured environments until they are ready to return. We owe that to both the offending students, but also to the teachers and students who stay behind.

Fifth, de-sexualize school. Switch from the current urban fashion to school uniforms. Outlaw foul language and “public displays of affection” with has come to cover everything from groping, grinding and worse. Leave “condom distribution” to the local drugstore. Teenagers, in particular, always were and are hungry for romance. Nevertheless, schools should be sex-free zones.

Sixth, the young need a meaning system, a worldview, which is bigger than their own appetites. A nation of self-oriented pleasure-seekers will have a short, inglorious future. It is a fundamental duty of parents to transmit to their children an understanding of where they come from, who they are and where they should be going. Churches are a great resource here. So are the schools, religious and private, that are freed from the “science-only” worldview of US public schools. Parents, however, have the ultimate responsibility to, as a friend once said to me, help children escape the “Great Suck of Self.”

Great education is not about money or about test scores. It is about inspiring the young with a realistic vision of what they can become and engaging them in this demanding work.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu.

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