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Jewish World Review /Jan. 8, 1999 /19 Teves, 5759

Tony Snow

Tony Snow Hot air in the Windy City

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) SOME CHICAGO PARENTS wanted to oust a sixth-grade algebra teacher who asked the following questions on an algebra test, dubbed the "City of Chicago High School Proficiency Exam":

"Rufus is pimping three girls. If the price is $65 for each trick, how many tricks will each girl have to turn before Rufus can pay for his $800-a-day crack habit?"

"Johnny has an AK-47 with a 40-round clip. If he misses six out of 10 shots and shoots 13 times at each drive-by shooting, how many drive-by shootings can he attend before he has to reload?"

"Jose has two ounces of cocaine, and he sells an 8-Ball to Jackson for $320 and 2 grams to Billy Joe for $85 per gram. What is the street value of the balance, if he doesn't cut it?"

This is not a David Letterman skit. A living, breathing educator handed these and other questions to 30 kids at the Horatio N. May School, whereupon the obedient scholars did what children usually do in such situations. They gnawed on their No. 2 pencils, sweated out answers, peeked at neighboring desks -- and tattled on Teacher when they got home.

Within hours, 11 families yanked their youngsters from the school. One mother, Theresa Welch, told the Associated Press: "I'm not sending (my daughter) to learn how to cut cocaine, how to be a prostitute, how to sell drugs and how to steal a car." The principal quelled the torch-wielding mob the modern way. She suspended the offending pedagogue and packed him off for psychological evaluation.

Only the teacher seemed to know that the questions were part of a spoof.

Educators have been mailing the ersatz "Chicago" test around the country for months. It's one of those jokes that, like a Christmas fruitcake, never seems to go away.

But as bad as the test was, the worst part of the story is that nobody seems to have considered the possibility that the teacher was pulling an imbecilic prank. In this age of condoms and outcome-based education, nothing seems too weird or far-fetched -- except perhaps a rigorous course of study in the basics.

America's public schools have become a disgrace because our teaching corps has fallen into disarray. Colleges of education serve as dumping grounds for our dimmest students. Of the 11 professional categories measured by the U.S. Department of Education, university entrants who express a preference for teaching rank dead last in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.

Four years of instruction do not improve the situation. Researcher Emily Feistritzer conducted a nationwide survey of teachers in 1990. She found that only 32 percent of recent education majors thought they were well grounded in their subjects when they began their public-school careers. The "well prepared" numbers in other categories are even more stunning: in teaching methods, 23 percent; classroom management/discipline, 16 percent; recognizing student learning styles, 15 percent; and working effectively within the school organization, 14 percent.

Now, imagine discovering that your doctor didn't feel "well prepared" to distinguish between a spleen and an esophagus. You'd find somebody else -- in a hurry. But most Americans have no such freedom when it comes to educating their children. They must accept the lost lambs of the university system because state laws restrict the privilege of teaching to people who own education degrees and belong to a teacher's union.

Policy-makers have begun looking for ways out of this box. Some states grant provisional teacher certification to graduates with degrees in academic disciplines and make the licensing permanent when instructors prove their mettle in a classroom.

Other states have experimented with privatization, letting specialists come in, teach the three R's and maybe even punish a troublemaker or two. When Wayne State University in Detroit opened a "charter school," it did not hand the business over to its own School of Education. It hired outsiders.

And the Michigan Legislature forged another weapon in the fight against mediocrity when it agreed recently to punish striking teachers -- a nationwide first. A measure due to take effect next year would dock educators' pay for each day they stayed out of school, while fining local unions $5,000 daily. The law imposes equivalent penalties against school board members and school districts who lock teachers out.

These reforms all encourage excellence in a take-it-or-leave-it system that doesn't work. And they're just the beginning. Americans love good teachers, loathe bad ones and have started to demand better. After all, we deserve schools in which a test about drive-by shootings could not be considered anything but a joke.


©1999, Creators Syndicate