America's schools on the ropes

Our nation's educational institutions are crumbling -- thanks to a combination of neglect and Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

Published August 2, 2001 5:19PM (EDT)

If it were a product, it would have been recalled. If it were a politician, it would have been impeached. If it were a horse, it would have been taken behind the barn and shot.

But it's not a faulty product, a corrupt politician or a broken-down horse. It's a failed system -- our K-12 public education system, which, despite a seemingly endless run of highly visible disasters, staggers doggedly on. It's defended, for the most part, by people without a stake in the system, by people who no longer have anyone they care about left in it.

The horror stories are so plentiful that "Tales From the Crypt" could do a decade's worth of bloodcurdling after-school specials and still not run out of material.

A particularly disturbing example from my home state tells a tale heard around the country: how bureaucratic number crunching has replaced educating our kids as the system's top priority. And heaven help the misguided soul who tries to actually make a difference, like the highly regarded advanced placement teachers in Culver City, Calif., who are being punished for, get this, being too successful.

Over the past 15 years, Nancy Goldberg and Curt Mortenson have built Culver City High's advanced placement program into a nationally recognized success story. They've been so good at getting students ready to take the standardized college-level tests that the College Board wanted them to train other teachers in their methods.

But the two were recently informed that they were being removed from the A.P. program. The reason? The proportion of their students passing the test had fallen from 70 percent in 1996 to only 44 percent this year. Clearly the duo had lost their touch, right? Far from it.

A mere scratch of the data shows that in fact Goldberg and Mortenson had inspired growing numbers of students to challenge themselves with the rigorous demands of the A.P. program. And many of the new recruits were minorities or kids without honors backgrounds. In the past four years, they have more than tripled the number of students taking the college-level English exam -- from 60 to close to 200. So while the percentage of students passing the test fell, the actual number qualifying for college credit more than doubled, going from 42 to 88.

More kids being challenged, more kids learning -- that's what our schools should be about. But not according to the principal who reassigned them. He evidently lacks the rudimentary math skills needed to appreciate Goldberg's and Mortenson's achievement. The city's assistant school superintendent sided with the principal, saying: "We always desire that there be more students passing the test." In other words, numbers trump knowledge -- and our kids be damned. Maybe they should only allow the class valedictorian to take the test -- then they'd have a 100 percent pass rate.

Then there's Maurice Rabb, one of five young teachers chronicled in "The First Year," a powerful new documentary by Davis Guggenheim. Although designed as a tool for persuading people to go into teaching, the film (scheduled to air on PBS Sept. 6) offers a sobering portrayal of the soul-sapping obstacles facing today's teachers -- particularly those in inner-city classrooms.

We watch as Rabb, a passionate and committed kindergarten teacher in South Central Los Angeles, struggles to get help for a student with a severe speech problem. He battles red tape and a no-show speech therapist who keeps only one appointment over an entire school year. His frustration mounting, Rabb ultimately takes it upon himself to tutor the boy, using his free time to give the stuttering youngster the extra attention he needs.

With examples like these, it's easy to see why America's schools are experiencing a massive exodus of teachers. If current trends continue, roughly half of today's 2.8 million public school teachers will have left the profession by 2010. And who can blame them?

Things have gotten so bad that some states are allowing the hiring of unlicensed instructors, while a number of school districts, including Chicago's, are looking overseas to find new teachers. I guess they're hoping that word travels slowly, and that teachers in, say, Outer Mongolia haven't yet heard how pathetic our schools have become.

Abandoned by politicians who simply sing the canticles of reform, students and parents all across the country are filing class-action lawsuits -- demanding that their inner-city districts receive the same school funding as their better-heeled suburban counterparts.

In New Jersey, where fewer than 10 percent of the poorest students receive adequate preschool education, it's Abbott vs. Burke. In California, where tens of thousands of low-income students are forced to endure roach- and rat-infested schools while making do without textbooks or credentialed teachers, it's Williams vs. State of California.

Who knows, maybe if enough aggrieved parents, students and teachers follow suit -- literally -- the system will finally collapse under the weight of its own incompetence.

It's time to demand a recall: the American public vs. the American education system. It's got a nice ring to it.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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