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What is really needed in our schools? (02/18/2007)
By Frances Edstrom

Alice Seagren, the Minnesota Commissioner of Education, came to town last week to talk about Governor Pawlenty's new plan to beef up high school education in the state. I'm all in favor of a better educated populace. But the question I have for state government is why simply doing something better than we're already doing it should cost so much money.

Over the years I have been a critic of public education for precisely the failings that the governor's new plan seeks to address. We have allowed our public schools to fall victim to the pernicious and pervasive "self-esteem" movement to the point that we dare not ask much of the students lest they discover that they were not born knowing everything they need to know to be successful adults, and thus feel bad about themselves.

So we have created a climate in which practically anyone who wants to can be on the honor roll, making such a designation nearly meaningless.

We don't offer difficult course work because "kids won't take those classes." Why? Because they don't want their grade point average to suffer.

What is the result? We graduate kids with great grades, but when they get to college too often find that they are not prepared for college level work.

This was driven home to me when my own children graduated from high school and went on to attend good schools " Carleton and St. Mary's at Notre Dame. Not too long into their freshman course work, they each told us that they felt unprepared by their high school studies.

They were not alone. According to Seagren, quoting an Achieve Inc. study, only 24% of high school graduates say they were significantly challenged in high school. (Achieve Inc. was created by the nation's governors and business leaders in 1996, as a bipartisan, nonprofit organization that helps states raise academic standards, improve assessments and strengthen accountability to prepare all young people for post secondary education, work and citizenship.)

Many kids are able, with a lot of hard work and help from supportive parents and college staff, to close the gap and have a successful college career. This should indicate that they would have been perfectly able to do more challenging work in high school if it had been provided to them. But many kids can't recover from a weak high school curriculum, will not finish college and will find themselves perpetually behind in a twenty-first century employment climate.

It will take more than our money, handed out by the governor's office, to change the state of U.S. public school education to compare favorably with that of other countries, whose graduates will be our kids' competitors for future jobs.

It will take a change in the attitudes of not only public school educators, but the students and their parents. It will have to become more important for all that children are given the best preparation for life after high school as possible, that they be challenged, not made to feel good.

That sounds easy, but it will be a big change. High schools will have to offer classes not because kids want them, but because adults know they will need them for further study. Parents will have to exchange their "My child is on the Honor Roll" bumper stickers for the knowledge that while their kids might not come home with all A's, they are receiving a topnotch preparatory education that will help them to survive and contribute to a strong nation in this new millennium.

Too many of our kids have been sliding blissfully through their elementary and high school years "feeling good" about themselves when what they need is to feel challenged, prepared and accomplished. Throwing $13.7 BILLION at this culture will not necessarily make the needed change. 


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