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Commentary: Our schools get lousy grades

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By Jack Cafferty

CNN

Below is an excerpt from CNN commentator Jack Cafferty's new book, "Now or Never." Cafferty appears daily in "The Situation Room" on CNN from 4 to 7 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- Call it another piece of evidence that this once great nation of ours is crumbling: Half of us believe our schools deserve a C or a D for the job they do preparing kids for higher education and making a go of it as grownups in the work force.

So said an Associated Press survey in summer 2008. The AP reported U.S. kids are scoring in the bottom half of the pack when measured against kids from other nations. President Obama's Department of Education (DOE) brain trust has their homework cut out for them if they plan on boosting the grades our schools earn while educating our kids.

Getting our kids through school has become a challenging, complex job that most folks say must begin at home with discipline, parental guidance, and closer attention to our kids' needs.

Obama said it simply in his final debate with John McCain: Unplug those video games, mom and dad, put other distractions away, and get down to work with your kids. Here's a guy who had no father around, basically; who was raised by a single white mother (helped by his white grandmother), sometimes on food stamps; and who became a star at Harvard Law School. So it can be done.

We've witnessed the decline of the importance of schooling in far too many homes. Learning must be a top priority for parents. But in today's brutal economy, breadwinners are forced to work two jobs, two parents sweat to keep their jobs and homes, and the kids get left unsupervised. They go online, text their pals, stare at the tube (or YouTube), and play video games. They're not dashing out to the public library to research renewable fuels or Renaissance history.

One major bone of contention among parents and educators was Bush's 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, whose focus was squarely on standardized, multiple-choice test scores in Math and English rather than on the quality (and deeper grasp by the student) of the curriculum.

Soon Congress was seeking authorization to pay bonuses up to $10,000 to reward outstanding teachers whose students excel -- one incentive to stem the flight of top teachers from our schools. Even in grades one through three, Bush's NCLB got into trouble. Reading First, the much-touted $1 billion-a-year reading program and NCLB cornerstone for 1.5 million kids in 5,200 schools, proved ineffective.

Worse, in 2006, the DOE's inspector general found that several top program advisers benefited financially by steering states and school districts to certain tests and texts tied to Reading First materials. The result: Congress slashed Reading First's $1 billion funding in 2007 to $400 million. Our kids paid quite a price for that mess.

I did an April 2008 "Cafferty File" piece that began, "The education crisis in America's largest cities is assuming frightening proportions. Only about half of all students who attend the main school systems in the 50 largest cities actually graduate from high school." It was a "coin toss," according to the non-profit Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center. Nationally, the figure for dropouts was nearly one in three. The group's founding chairman, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, called the situation-1.2 million dropouts a year-"not just a crisis, but a catastrophe." Main school districts in Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Baltimore all had graduation averages below 40 percent, Detroit's being 25 percent.

The real threat to the United States, I said in another piece on "dropout factories," where less than 60 percent graduate (one in 10 schools qualify), is that our kids can't cut it against kids schooled in today's emerging economies. How can they compete globally, I asked, when barely half of the kids in our largest cities even graduate?

Aron from Toronto wrote, "You're kidding, right? That ship has sailed. As one who traveled 200,000 miles on business last year, I can tell you for certain that the world places no hope, no weight upon America's youth making even a future ripple in the global waters ... Having visited the top public schools in India and China, I can assure you that the future for America's youth is much bleaker than even the greatest skeptics could imagine."

One underlying problem in public education is that the system has morphed into this giant government bureaucracy that sucks up billions and billions of dollars for everything except teaching children reading, writing, and arithmetic (and sciences). We pay school administrators hundreds of thousands of dollars to preside over these failed enterprises that produce their share of functional illiterates.

Beyond imposing some learning-related discipline at home, parents might also seize the initiative by getting more involved: serving on the school board; volunteering, time permitting, to work at the local school with kids who need extra help. When that mind set of involvement spreads through the populace, change is more likely.

I've asked many "Cafferty File" questions (all drawn from the news) about our schools that never fail to trigger intense viewer concern: Birth control pills and maternity leave for pregnant girls? A ban on all school junk food? Mandatory Breathalyzer tests at school dances? In that instance, a New Jersey superintendent said recent events had left him no choice. His program's zero-tolerance message about alcohol was a way to improve the atmosphere for education.

As Mark from Philadelphia wrote, "Having just been a high school student less than a year ago, I can tell you how rampant the alcohol and drug problem among our youth is. I can literally only name one peer of mine who has not done marijuana, and not one who has not drunk alcohol. This is just one necessary step in reforming our schools."

One "File" piece was inspired by a Chicago district that allowed the U.S. Marine Corps to run one of its high schools. Outrageous? Not to my viewers. Thomas in Florida wrote, "A high school where the students are required to be respectful of authority, that fosters an environment of personal discipline, academic and physical achievement -- sounds preposterous to me. You must be kidding. Why, before you know it, our nation might be churning out mannered, intelligent young adults again. Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and Wal-Mart would never stand for that." Greg in California wrote, "My daughter starts high school next year. Can they build one out here in Southern California by then?"


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