August 14, 1998 | Commentary on Education
It's that time of year again-time for parents to buy clothes for the kids, prepare sack lunches, and send America's future leaders back to schools that teach … in some cases, not much at all.
How bad are our public schools? Consider: A 1995 international physics test showed American 12th-graders ranked behind their counterparts in 11 other countries-including such intellectual superpowers as Slovenia, Latvia and Cyprus. Math scores here weren't much better. American fourth-graders ranked eighth in that category. Reading? Forget it. In 1994 only 30 percent of fourth_graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 36 percent of 12th-graders read "proficiently," and less than 8 percent were considered "advanced."
The education establishment, more concerned with propping up failed public schools than with teaching the three Rs, is failing our kids. That's why I'm a fan of charter schools. These schools operate under a "charter," or pact, with the local school system. In exchange for exemption from bureaucratic rules and red tape, they are held to a higher standard. If they don't do a good job teaching kids, they can have their charters revoked.
One educator making the most of this flexibility is Thaddeus Lott, who runs four charter schools in Houston. Academically, his students have been creaming their regular-school counterparts.
Teachers at Lott's schools use "direct instruction," an old-fashioned teaching method that stresses fundamental reading, writing and math skills. The students are grilled with questions and expected to provide prompt answers, which makes teachers immediately aware of who is grasping the material and who isn't. The results? In 1996, 100 percent of his third-graders at Wesley Elementary School passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in reading. Statewide, schools with similar demographics saw less than 70 percent of their third-graders pass.
As a charter school administrator, Lott has the freedom to fire teachers who don't cut it. He can also ignore the silly certification requirements that prevent talented individuals from teaching simply because they haven't jumped through the education establishment's hoops. For example, most public schools would not let former President George Bush teach government because he isn't "certified." No wonder some of our best and brightest are deterred from teaching.
And look what we get instead. Recently, 59 percent of prospective teachers in Massachusetts flunked a test (set at about a 10th-grade difficulty level) designed to measure basic competence in reading, writing and a subject area. Some of these would-be educators of our children couldn't even spell, inventing such words as "improbally," "corupt" and "integraty."
Part of the problem, of course, is the schools of education at our nation's colleges and universities. Rather than give future teachers a solid liberal arts education and expertise in a given field, these programs feature courses such as "Diverse Learners In Multicultural Perspectives" and "Reflections on Learning." How about some reflections on math, history and English instead?
Even education professors admit their students often make poor teachers. Indeed, 75 percent of education professors complain that too many of their students can't write essays free of grammatical and spelling errors, according to a 1997 Public Agenda study. And 72 percent say they "often" or "sometimes" come across students they seriously doubt have what it takes to teach. Worst of all, only 4 percent say their programs dismiss students considered unsuitable for teaching.
I don't mean to imply that charter schools by themselves are the solution. But by freeing education entrepreneurs from regulations and letting them hire the best teachers-"certified" or not-they can rescue at least a few kids from America's flunking education system.
J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation,
a Washington-based public policy research institute.