"ONE OF THESE DAYS," groaned the Boston Herald in a May 1993 editorial, "the Massachusetts Board of Education is going to adopt a policy aimed at teaching schoolchildren how to read English, do arithmetic, and find New Jersey on a map, and we're going to fall off our chairs in shock.
"That day, however, has not yet arrived."
Three-and-a-half years later, that day still hasn't arrived.
Proof came in the new statewide student test scores released last week. They were appalling. As in the past, students were ranked on a 4-point scale, with those at Level 1 barely managing basic facts, while those at Level 4 show clear proficiency in knowledge, reasoning, and communicating. The number of students at Level 4 is tiny -- no more than 8 percent in any subject, and no higher than 5 percent in most of them. Since 1992, the percentage of high-achieving students has fallen in virtually every grade and subject. By contrast, vast numbers of students are dangerously subpar. At least 35 percent of all fourth-graders crawl at or below Level 1; among 10th-graders, the rate is closer to 45 percent.
In short, between one-third and one-half of public school students are academic failures. Fewer than one-10th excel. If reaching at least Level 2 -- i.e., doing minimally competent work -- were a condition for graduation, more than 1 of every 3 students would be held back.
How did the Massachusetts Department of Education report the latest scores? Why, as a piece of wondrous news. "Tests Show Statewide Improvement in Grade 4 Science and Reading Over Past Eight Years," trumpeted the headline on the department's October 21 news release. The text crowed that the new results "show a continuing significant improvement in student achievement levels in Grade 4 reading and science and Grade 8 reading over the past eight years."
The art of misleading through selective use of statistics is an old one. But to twist the evidence that children are failing to learn into a declaration that they are learning more than ever is malicious. The truth about Grade 4 -- all subjects, not only reading and science -- is that fewer than 5 percent of students are doing top-quality work, while seven times as many have but the weakest grasp on their studies. The truth about Grade 8, as the Globe's Kate Zernike pointed out last week, is that "the number of eighth-graders showing they have mastered what they're being taught has declined in every subject since 1992." The truth about Grade 10 is that 1 student in 8 can't do math, and nearly 1 in 6 can't read a high school book.
Why camouflage this disaster? No one would dream of manipulating and obfuscating sports statistics. Don't academic scores deserve at least the blunt honesty we take for granted in athletic records?
To be sure, some members of the Board of Education eschewed the sugar coating. Board chairman John Silber called the results "a record of scandal." When Education Commissioner Robert Antonucci was asked why, after four years of "education reform," fewer students are doing well in school, he replied: "I don't know. I'm baffled."
He shouldn't be. The Education Reform Act of 1993 was a sham when it was passed, and it remains a sham today. The law is lengthy, but its premise was always clear -- the way to fix public education in Massachusetts is to spend billions of additional dollars while leaving the existing system largely untouched. It was harebrained from the start, the equivalent of giving a raise to an incompetent employee and expecting his work to improve. The mystery is not why the law hasn't improved the public schools, but why anyone ever imagined it would.
"For a $5 billion price tag to be paid out over seven years," Governor William Weld's key adviser on education reform warned in a memo as the bill neared final passage in June 1993, "we are buying very litle real reform. We are simply pumping money into the failed structure with a little tinkering, some good and some bad, around the edges. Children in our worst systems, especially in the bureaucratic inner-city systems, will continue to be denied a basic education and productive lives. . . . The impetus and leverage for further legislative action will be lost."
Weld could have rejected a bill that was so long on spending and so short on genuine repairs. But, keen to claim credit for anything labeled "education reform," he ignored its gaping defects and signed it into law.
Whereupon the sluices opened, and the cash flowed. "For us," one superintendent told the Globe delightedly, "the issue was money, money, money." And what did all that money buy? Two-thirds of the all "instructional" spending was plowed into teacher salaries. Employee benefits and insurance soared. By mid-1995, teacher payroll was up $317 million. A mere $26 million had gone for new books and equipment.
For the unions and the bureaucrats, the 1993 law has been a gushing bonanza. For students and parents, it has been a bust. One billion dollars of "education reform" later, and student test scores are as lousy as ever. Education reform? Education robbery is more like it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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