How Well Do Schools Prepare Their Students?

The elimination of property tax funding for schools gives Michigan an historic opportunity to restructure its education system--not just the funding mechanism, but the schools themselves. But whether you believe there is a need to change the schools depends on how well you think they are performing their tasks.

For nearly ten years, I taught college courses in economics and business law. Teaching hundreds of freshmen and sophomores, mostly from Michigan and representing wide variations in family income, I came to the conclusion that by and large, our schools do not adequately prepare students for either college studies or life's future challenges. Improving school performance is undoubtedly the most urgent issue facing our state.

It's risky to generalize, but I believe the following observations drawn from my teaching experience are warranted, and widely shared by other instructors in the state's colleges and universities:

· Students have little motivation to learn. Far from inspiring young minds to intellectual curiosity, K-12 education too often turns students into listless or even hostile subjects. A shocking number seem unwilling to put forth more than minimal effort at learning what they have been assigned.

A classroom encounter which I remember very well speaks volumes about the prevailing mindset among today's students. I had been trying without any success to spur the students to respond to questions about the day's reading assignment. Few had troubled themselves to read it at all. Finally, one student put up his hand and asked, "Couldn't you just, you know, tell us the main point?"

Waiting for someone else to tell you "the main point" is the easy way out; reading to discover the main point, as well as the facts and reasoning leading to it, is a challenge, but more akin to what life and successful living are all about.

· Students have poor reading skills. Many students try to avoid having to read but when they do read, they derive little benefit from it. They move their eyes across the page, but never stop to ask themselves if they understand what the author has written. They do not go back over passages or look up words they don't know. For great numbers of students, reading has become a physical rather than an intellectual exercise.

· Students have poor writing skills. When I began teaching, I was shocked at how poorly most students wrote. How could high school graduates confuse the words "there" and "their"--something I learned in third grade? How was it possible that they would be unfamiliar with punctuation and paragraphing? Doesn't anyone teach how to diagram sentences any more?

From conversations with my students, I learned the disturbing truth: they had scarcely ever been required to write before. One young lady lamented, "But I never had to write essay tests; we always had true and false or multiple choice in high school."

· Students do not know how to reason. International testing shows that American students compare unfavorably with those of other nations when it comes to problem-solving. Many of my students were able to memorize facts, definitions and statements of principles, but were lost when asked to apply them to unexpected circumstances.

· Students don't know that they don't know. Grade inflation and the watering down of courses has resulted in students believing that they are much more competent academically than they really are. And because so many of them think they are good students, they are rudely awakened when they arrive in the job market and discover endless challenges they cannot handle.

Children have a natural and insatiable desire to learn, but it is becoming painfully evident that this desire is smothered in many public schools today. Efforts to blame specific teachers or administrators are usually misdirected. The problem rests with a system that assigns students to schools based not on personal choice but on geography, a system that makes parents and children captives instead of customers. An education monopoly has little incentive to impart a genuine thirst for learning.

The experience of New York City's District #4 in East Harlem tells us much about what a little choice and diversity can do to improve things. Twenty years ago, achievement scores were the worst in the city. Then, in 1974, District #4 established three new schools. Each had a theme or specialty, and none was "guaranteed" any students. Parents chose to send their children to them and were free to take them out again if they were dissatisfied.

The three unique "choice schools" flourished, and the idea caught on. Over the next ten years, twenty more were established in District 4. Two of the worst schools were forced to close due to customer flight, and reopened later with fresh management and better attitudes. Meanwhile, the percentages of students reading at or above grade level rose from 15.9 percent in 1973 to 62.6 percent in 1987. Choice in education worked wonders with the children of East Harlem, and no one now wants to turn back the clock to the days when parents had no choice.

As long as students are trapped in a highly bureaucratic, largely unresponsive monopoly in which neither they nor their parents feel any sense of ownership, they will be educated poorly. That is the paramount lesson of decades of public education in Michigan. Choice is an idea whose time is overdue, not as a panacea, but as one element of any plan to fix what we no longer can afford to ignore.