Here, as elsewhere, the shortest path to a solution begins with a sober understanding of the problem. How and where are we falling short of our educational ideals? To what degree? In attempting to answer these questions we must be unflinching. Glossing over imperfections in our present system of education will only delay or prevent their correction. At the same time, it should be clear that the point is not to ascribe blame to individuals. Our educators are as good and as dedicated a group of people as can be found in any profession, and even if we were to swap them for an entirely different workforce tomorrow, it would do nothing to address whatever flaws may exist in the system's design.
Our greatest problem, and yet the one whose magnitude we most often underestimate, is our astonishing failure to serve low-income and minority children. According to the most recent International Adult Literacy Survey, one quarter of 16- to 25-year-old Americans cannot read or write well enough to understand a bus schedule, let alone put together a resume or read a newspaper. We have condemned one quarter of our young men and women to remain on the periphery of society, locked them out of most gainful employment, and shut them off from the joy and solace of the written word. Of these tens of millions of young people, a disproportionate number come from poor or minority families.
Every day, all over the country, countless other children also are shortchanged. There is the child who, for any of a number of reasons, lags behind his age-mates in math or science. This student is nonetheless pushed ahead year after year, to spare him the stress of being "flunked." Instead of reassessing the system that would inflict such trauma, we turn away from this child's growing frustration and confusion with the subject matter and his lack, at each successive grade, of the underlying knowledge necessary to grasp his current assignments. It is as a result of this "social promotion" that barely literate, barely numerate students can be graduated from high school, ill-equipped to deal with the modern world.
On the other end of the spectrum is the little girl who begins avidly reading horse stories in her adolescence and leaps quickly ahead to ever richer, more sophisticated works of literature. By the time she reaches high school, she yearns to be engaged by more challenging discussions and would profit from reading great works of literature. Sometimes this spark is kindled into an educational blaze, with classes tailored to her advanced abilities. Too often, though, it is allowed to fizzle instead by a system designed to serve a mythical "average" student rather than meet the varied needs of the individual children in its care. How much do we lose when we fail to fan these sparks of excitement and love of learning? How much do our children lose?
And what of the great teachers? Those who, year after year, elicit from their students achievements no one thought possible? Those who devise new ways of conveying a deep and lasting understanding of their subjects? At best, we try to identify a handful of them, handing out awards for recognition of a job well done. And there it ends. Many more top teachers labor in relative anonymity, known only to their immediate colleagues and students. Even those identified on the state or national level are seldom given the opportunity to broadly disseminate their successful techniques, or to design new lesson plans for use by vast numbers of students.
This indifference to excellent teaching has caused a staggering educational and cultural loss to ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. Imagine a world where penicillin, electricity, and modern agricultural techniques never spread beyond the handful of individuals who developed them. Conversely, imagine a world where the best educational materials and techniques were continually searched for, identified, and made widely available; where untested fads could not gain or keep a foothold, and where improvements were constantly sought for even the most soundly proven and effective methods. Our inability to bring the remarkable progress evident in so many areas of human life to the field of education, and especially the inability to get the best educational methods and materials to all the students who need them, has a painful and ever-mounting cost.
Conversely, how can we tolerate the annual pageant in which ineffective teachers are shuffled from one school to another, rather than being helped to improve or dismissed? Though job security is a valuable asset in attracting people to the teaching profession, it is impossible to justify the social cost of keeping teachers who fail to perform adequately year after year. Four out of five teachers agree that it must be made easier to fire their incompetent peers. They know that even though these individuals comprise a small portion of the total workforce, on a national level they impede the educational progress of countless children.
Finally, we must not forget the vitriolic conflicts that have relentlessly beset our education system. Though the "school wars" of the past century are sometimes thought to be inevitable in a free and democratic nation, or even to be embodiments of that freedom and democracy, these views ring hollow. Our religious diversity is no less than our diversity of educational interests and preferences, and yet we have managed to build one of the most peaceful heterogeneous religious communities in the world. No, our constant bickering over curriculum, methods, school prayer, sex education, and the like are not integral parts of education in a free society. They are evidence that we have yet to find a harmonious way for Americans to pursue their shared educational goals while also carrying on their varied traditions and meeting their unique needs.