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HICKS: Educators must acknowledge need for reform

November 13, 2010

Two of my recent columns on education have spawned a fair bit of comment—overwhelmingly supportive overall with some exception. I feel the need to comment further.

American K-12 education is in bad shape. Failure to fix it severely limits our economic future, will expand income inequality, and will make our country a worse place to live.

The bulk of blame lies in bad parenting, which creates a merciless cycle with an elusive remedy. This is in part why early-childhood educational opportunities matter so much—they offer a break in this cycle. Children from families with strong, effective parents benefit from this experience also, but not nearly as much as kids from less-nurturing homes. This is an unpleasant truth, but is why we must ultimately direct more resources to early-childhood education.

Schools also bear a great deal of blame. In response to one of my recent columns, one superintendent of schools wrote an op-ed piece that provides the perfect example of the problem. I won’t name the district; it is too embarrassing. This superintendent wrote of the abundance of “supermen” in the school district, and heralded the 87-percent graduation rate and fine performance of the school band. While I have no doubt that super teachers abound, it is what he didn’t say that nicely frames the problem.

In this county’s schools, one in eight students fail to graduate from high school and are destined to a life on the edge of poverty. One in five couldn’t pass algebra end-of-course tests, and fewer than three in five passed both their ISTEP+ tests in math and English. Fewer than half the county’s recent graduating class has any post-high-school educational plans, which may reflect reality with regard to their preparation.

Of those taking advanced placement classes, fewer than half felt confident enough in their preparation to take the AP exam. Of those, so few passed that it appears only 1.8 percent of students received AP credit. It would have been cheaper to actually send these kids to college classes—at Harvard. This district, of which the superintendent is so proud, has total SAT scores 50 points lower than the state average, and a third fewer of this county’s students received a pass-plus in their ISTEP+ than does the state as a whole.

Make no mistake about it, this school district suffers abysmal outcomes. Any superintendent who can simultaneously comprehend summary statistics and tell the truth wouldn’t be writing glowing editorials about these schools. The truth is, half the students who graduate from this county’s high schools should expect nothing better than entry-level employment at a big-box store.

Fixing schools won’t be easy, but it begins with an honest realization of the problem—not mendacious malarkey. Other institutions have pulled themselves out of the depths of catastrophe (see U.S. Army, post-Vietnam), and it’s likely the Legislature will expand the tools reformers need to make the difference in schools this year. But what we really need is more reformers.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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