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Adults Dither as Schools, Unions Fail Children

Dismal news about U.S. public education keeps tumbling in, but Congress seems unable to act and Republican presidential candidates seem determined to have America keep slipping behind the rest of the world.

And the Obama administration, which previously sparked dramatic state action for school reform, is showing signs of letting up the pressure.

After nearly three years of talk, Congress has failed to renew and reform President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act that mandated school reform. Citing Congressional “dysfunction,” President Barack Obama has controversially imposed his own program by executive order, but some reformers say it’s significantly weaker than NCLB.

And despite evidence that public schools are underserving all income groups, GOP presidential candidates all want to “get Washington out of education” — several of them by dismantling the U.S. Department of Education — thereby undoing national pressure for change.

At NBC’s two-day Education Nation conference that I attended in New York last week, not one of 10 governors on a panel — including conservative Republicans from Wisconsin, Virginia, Oklahoma and Alaska — supported ending the DOE.

As noted in the NBC conference’s program, “Compared to the rest of the world, U.S. high school students rank 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math — at or below the international average in all three subjects.”

That’s familiar bad news, along with the fact that only 73 percent of young people graduate from high school on time — and only half of minority kids, America’s future majority — though two-thirds of future jobs will require post-secondary training.

In the past month, more unsettling reports have come in. New Scholastic Aptitude Test results showed only 43 percent of kids intending to go to college are actually prepared for college work. ACT exam results put that number at just 25 percent.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported, also in September, that the United States has fallen from 12th to 16th in the percentage of young adults holding college degrees, trailing even Russia.

In an interview in New York, the president of the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel, told me that America’s rankings would all be world class if poor kids were not counted — bolstering the repeated union claim that it’s poverty, not bad teaching, that’s the problem.

But that argument is exploded by two new studies that ought to land like bombs among U.S. policymakers. Third Way, a centrist think tank, reported that middle-class schools score behind both upper-income and poverty schools in average teacher salaries, per-pupil expenditures and class size, and get only 28 percent of their graduates through college.

And, finally, the George W. Bush Institute just released a Global Report Card showing that even the very wealthiest schools and districts in the country — including Beverly Hills and Palo Alto in California and Fairfax and Montgomery counties in the Washington, D.C., suburbs — score no better on math, science and reading tests than average schools in 25 developed countries.

A few very high-income or highly educated districts scored at the top of the rankings, but the most encouraging finding was that so did charter schools in Massachusetts, New York City, Delaware and North Carolina that serve low-income students.

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