Education As We Know It: C-Minus at Best

A new Rasmussen poll shows low American confidence in public schools, with less than a quarter of Americans believing the public education system is good.

The poll shows, however, that Americans give higher marks to the school their own child attends, with 63 percent rating their child’s school as good or excellent.

This 63 percent approval rating reminds me of people in a bad marriage — or formerly in a bad marriage, and now looking back on it. The assessment of that bad marriage while you’re in it usually boils down to being attached — but not really loving or being loved. Or, put another way: Being familiar with something, but not necessarily loving, admiring or respecting it.

I believe it’s similar with education as we know it. Education is essentially a politicized government monopoly, the way health care is becoming (thanks to the recent completion of socialized medicine). Few can afford private schools, and as a result there’s very little innovation in education as there would be in a competitive, free market for education. Imagine if the government paid for most people’s computers or cell phones. Yes, private competition for better computers would exist, but most would default to the government brand. Because it’s a democracy, and politicians do fear being voted out of office, everything would be done to make sure the computers were adequate enough — but only so adequate, because the cost of providing every American with a free computer would be high enough. In a nutshell, not too good, but not too bad either. That’s the definition of mediocrity.

At least with my computer example, you can plainly and concretely judge whether a computer is good, mediocre or poor. A lot of people don’t know how (or perhaps care to know how) to judge schools. Most probably assume, “If my government is doing it, they know what they’re talking about. It must be pretty good education.” Others simply look at how nice the teachers are, and how good their child’s grades are. Public schools are known for grade inflation, for example. Teachers have told me this is particularly true since the passage of “No Child Left Behind.” Schools are under pressure to make sure it looks like students are performing, so they do what they have to do to pass government muster (meaning: the adult equivalent of a C-minus performance at best.) In the abstract, nobody favors grade inflation. Nobody wants a teacher to be giving any student grades higher than he or she deserves. But when it comes to “MY child” getting A’s and B’s, well, that’s not going to be questioned. “My child is doing well, so obviously this school does a good job.” What are the criteria for good education? I doubt that most parents have really thought about it, all that much.

Perhaps the best way to judge public education as we know it — the dominant form of education in the United States, since the majority go to public schools — is to look at the kind of people being turned out by it. Let’s be honest about this, just for one rare moment. Does anyone think the caliber of character, intelligence and general rationality and self-responsibility is getting higher from one generation to the next? I’m talking about the dominant trends here, not the unusual and heroic exceptions (which thankfully will always exist).

Neither liberals nor conservatives question the primacy of government when it comes to education. This conveniently leads to an absence of the tough questions. I’ll ask them here anyway.

Are public schools turning out more and more self-responsible people who don’t demand or expect to be taken care of by others? And are they turning out people who have a strong sense of independent thinking, self-initiative and personal responsibility?

What’s happening to the quality of corporate America? And how about politics? Does anyone actually think America is in the midst of a cultural or political Renaissance? Is this the kind of generation that would have fought and won World War II, or have breathed life into the Declaration of Independence by fighting off a tyranny like colonialist Britain?

We’re spending billions and billions on the federal Department of Education to run the whole show. I bet most American parents can’t identify the Secretary of Education. How accountable are federal officials held for the results they’re getting?

Just answer these questions for yourself, honestly and objectively. Speaking for myself, I don’t see any evidence of public schools inspiring great minds. I see quality young people, but I don’t think they have the mediocrity of public schools to thank for it. Many were educated in private schools, and many who were educated in public schools simply learned to think for themselves and expand their knowledge outside the mediocrity of the average classroom. Like I said, there will always be the heroic exceptions and these are the ones who keep society going.

But these poor parents, 63 percent of whom actually seem to believe that we have anything close to ideal education in this country, are more than a little misled. I suppose that explains the mess our country is in today. You have some — a vocal and robust minority, at times — who raise the difficult questions, such as “How can Social Security and Medicare sustain themselves when they’re already bankrupt?” or, “What right does a President have to say that Americans don’t create their own success, and aren’t entitled to keep the fruits of their labor?” But you have a majority who keep enabling these dysfunctional leaders, in both parties, and as a result you keep ending up with the same evasions and willful blindness and recklessness that has just been increasing, if anything, from one generation to the next.

Public schools OK? I don’t think so. America’s mediocre approach to education has resulted in a nation dominated by poor souls who have blinders on, ears covered and who whistle happily with faux self-esteem that all will be well, somehow. Better education, outside of government’s hands, would have prevented a lot of this.


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