The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


April 4, 2013

Anson Burlingame, guest columnist: How to fix public education in America

The Joplin Globe has recently published three provocative columns all related to public education in our K-12 school system.

Kirby Newport, Geoff Caldwell and Caroline Tubbs all had something to contribute to the discussion.

Here am I, No. 4, adding my two cents on a subject that I feel deeply about.

Since the 1960s our public education system has become worse and worse, and we must do something to fix the problem.

It will take We the People, the public in America, to find a consensus on the nature of the problem and how to fix it. Yelling at each other will do no good.

So what exactly is the problem? To me it is clear. Too many students are dropping out, and many who do graduate lack the level of knowledge and citizenship skills to become productive citizens in a demanding, modern world where good education is a key to success.

If we can agree that lack of knowledge and citizenship on the part of students is the problem, doesn’t that tell us what needs to be done? We must improve both what kids learn (knowledge) and how to they behave in school and in the larger world. I would further suggest that honesty is required all the time. Cheaters don’t learn, period.

Permit me to state why I believe the problem is as stated above. “The Bell Curve” is a controversial book written on the subject of education. Forget the suggested solutions in the book. Just focus on the statement of the problem and the evidence to support it.

It is a laborious read. It’s a book filled with statistics clearly showing a decline in level of knowledge of our students since the 1960s. There are international rankings provided, most of which show American students relatively low on the scale of such measurements. To me that is evidence enough to highlight the problem of lack of sufficient level of knowledge in important academic subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic, the basis for any education.

All the arguments seem to focus on ancillary issues — money, testing, innovation in teaching methods and a host of other arguments over solutions. The one topic not addressed often in this debate is hard work by everyone, particularly students. To me, learning anything is not easy; it takes hard work. Unfortunately, sometimes the pain of failure is needed to stimulate students.

Tests themselves are not the fundamental problem. Tests are designed to measure levels of knowledge, and good people know how to write good tests to achieve that goal. The level of knowledge of basic subjects is the problem, not the tests.

To learn the material takes hard work over a 12-year journey through education. Kids who misbehave, do not pay attention, do not complete assignments, do not attend classes, etc. will not learn the material. Teachers and administrators who let them misbehave and goof off in class, don’t demand completion of all assignments and don’t test them in class only contribute to the problem. It does not take more money to make students work to learn and to behave. It takes high standards in both level of knowledge and citizenship (behavior and attitude).

Administrators must set the standards, and teachers, each and every one of them, must uphold those standards day after long classroom day for 12 years for every student, period. Set and uphold high standards and our public education will improve. And yes, the first standard in any school must be that lying and cheating will not be tolerated by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

I close with a quote from a remarkable man, Adm. Hyman Rickover, the “father of the nuclear navy.” He viewed education as the key to success in putting nuclear power to sea on ships, starting soon after World War II. There are reams of congressional testimony from him on that subject over three decades when he lectured everyone who would listen over how to improve education.

He posted this sign at every school for which he was responsible: “The smartest students in this school must WORK AS HARD (my emphasis) as those who must struggle to pass.”

Until public education in America achieves something close to that challenge of hard work for all students, all the time, I believe we will continue to founder.

Anson Burlingame lives in Joplin.


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