“Lowest-common-denominator” education is not the answer

American public schools are under greater attack than at any time in our nation’s history. The charge is simple and direct: American public schools are not educating our youth. Schools started slipping in the depression years, and they have gotten measureably worse almost every year since.

The case against American public education is easy to document. It begins right at the start—in kindergarten and first grade. A 1971 study showed that first-grade “readers published in the 1920’s contained on the average 645 different words. By the 1930’s, this number had dropped to about 460 words.… Analyzing seven basic reader series published between 1960 and 1963, … [researchers discovered that] the total pre-primer vocabulary ranged from a low of 54 to a high of 83 words; primer vocabularies from 113 to 173 words” (Bettelheim and Zelan, On Learning to Read).

Most children at this age already know and use a vocabulary of 4,000 words or more. Even the lowest section of first-graders master well above 2,000 words. Writing a century ago, Anne Sullivan, teacher of Helen Keller, hit it on the nose: “Public education programs seem to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot.” If that was true in her day, then in our day we must consider children five times more idiotic than a hundred years ago.

And that is just the beginning of the sad demise of American public education. Almost everyone is passed no matter how poorly he or she does. Absenteeism is rampant. Required foreign language courses have disappeared from the high schools. The average scores made by students on standardized tests have dropped almost every year. Scholastic Aptitude Test composite scores have ...

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