Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2000 / 14 Kislev, 5761
On Election Day (it seems like a year ago, doesn't it?), voters in California and Michigan rejected ballot initiatives aimed at reforming education. Specifically, voters said no to vouchers, which would have allowed parents some choice on where they spend tax dollars earmarked for education. Under the defeated proposals, if parents were dissatisfied with local public schools, they could spend the vouchers at private or parochial schools.
Is the educational reform movement dead? American parents had better hope not, because there's still a lot that needs reforming. This week we learned that the performance of our eighth-grade students in math and science still trails that of students in most of the industrialized world. In fact, even when you include developing nations in the statistics, our kids are barely average. We're badly trailing Taiwan, Singapore and Japan; we're clearly losing to Canada and the Netherlands; and we're lagging behind both republics that used to be Czechoslovakia.
On the math test, the United States placed just behind Bulgaria and Latvia. On the science test, the Americans managed to beat the Latvians in a squeaker but lost another close one to Bulgaria at the buzzer. We should all thank our lucky stars that economic performance is not directly tied to K-12 educational prowess. We have great universities and a more-or-less free market in our favor, but you have to wonder how long we can lead the world in wealth while we trail it in knowledge. You have to wonder how long we can lead the world in computers and electronics while our kids trail most of the developed world in physics.
Judging from the results of this latest test, known as the Third International Math and Science Study-Repeat, we may lose our competitive edge in semiconductors, but at least we'll maintain our strength in environmental sensitivity. Though our kids turned out to be mediocre in physics, they scored above average in "environmental and resource issues." Does that make you feel better?
George W. Bush should keep educational reform at the top of his agenda. Bush has talked about accountability. Rewarding success and punishing failure represent a good start. A continuing fight for vouchers at the state level also could make a big difference. Competition is almost certain to improve government-run schools, just as competition brings innovation and improvement in every other area of human activity.
The latest test results suggest another possible reform. Along with the math and science tests for students, the study also asked eighth-grade teachers about their qualifications. The differences were striking. More than 70% of math teachers in foreign countries have bachelor's or master's degrees in mathematics, while only 41% of U.S. math teachers have degrees in math.
It's the same story in science. Only 13% of U.S. science teachers have physics degrees, compared with 23% overseas. Only 21% of U.S. science teachers have degrees in chemistry vs. 30% overseas. In contrast, our teachers were much more likely than their foreign counterparts to hold degrees in education.
I don't want to knock education degrees. Learning how to reach kids and
communicate ideas in a classroom are valuable skills, but the most polished
teaching techniques in the world won't help you teach physics if you don't
understand acceleration and momentum. An education degree may be a
great complement for a science teacher who already knows Bernoulli's
Principle, or for a football coach who already knows how to block and
tackle. But before you learn how to transmit your knowledge, you need to
acquire that knowledge. If we want to reform education, let's make sure that
teachers understand what they're
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