Saturday, January 14, 2006

Are American Kids Stupid?

I didn't watch 20/20 last night, but I did read the writeup about the program and heard Stossel interviewed about it when DH turned on the O'Reilly Factor last night.

I have to disagree with Mr. Stossel. I don't think vouchers and "competition" are going to raise high schoolers' academic performance on an international level. But I also don't think the dire predictions about bankrupting inner city schools are accurate. Any state or city that has an open enrollment policy already has a voucher system. If I move my boys from the neighborhood public middle school to a virtual public middle school, their $6K allotment of state tax dollars goes with them. That policy has increased the number of options I have for educating my sons. That's a good thing.

We had an open enrollment high school in my town back when I was in high school. Everyone had the choice to go to their neighborhood high school or to Central. I was in the downtown district, my neighborhood school was Tech (the vo-tech high school) and since I was not interested in vocational training, I went to Central by default. I'm very glad I did because their honors and vocal music programs were excellent! I can't say how the education was at the academic or general levels, though. I don't know if there was a "skimming off the cream" effect because of open enrollment. It's possible we had such a strong honors program because we were drawing from the entire city so we had a larger number of honors kids. But the kids I knew in different neighborhoods almost all went to their neighborhood schools because otherwise transportation was BYOB (Bring your own bus).

The year after I graduated, Tech closed due to low enrollment. It wasn't due to lack of funds. The school board poured all kinds of money into Tech those last few years. They had more computers than we did, a functioning radio and tv station, facilities for various kinds of metal work, carpentry, etc.; all kinds of stuff. Unfortunately, no one wanted a vo-tech education.

I think it's telling that our kids are academically competitive in fourth grade but not in 8th or 12th. Our middle and high schools are much more focused on social activities than academic ones. We expect this. Take for example the anti-homeschoolers who say, "But what about prom?" How many other countries think the most important thing about high school is a dance? High school students were surveyed last year and most of them said their classes were a waste of time because they were too easy. The high school administrator asked about the survey results said, "I thought we were being too hard on them."

We as a country need to raise our expectations. Unfortunately, NCLB is having the exact opposite effect. It has focused the educational community on making everyone average (bringing up the scores of those lower than average) and is having the effect of making everyone average (bringing higher achievers down to average level because they're not being taught anything they don't already know). Vouchers are not going to change this, unless they can create an environment where each child finds a school that will challenge him to the best of his ability. I had that opportunity in high school through the open enrollment policy and I'm a better person for it. If I had gone to Tech, would I have thrived? I can't say for sure, but I have my doubts.

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