Friday, August 1, 2008

Mis-education of Sean Hannity

“The government has ruined the education system.”

Sean Hannity made this claim during a series of rants the other day as he argued down another liberal who was foolish enough to call in and debate him.

Ruined? The system may be troubled, inconsistent, inefficient, faltering, even damaged – but ruined? I have to disagree, and it’s not just because I’m a teacher. As for the government being responsible, I was surprised by Sean’s focus, as he usually blames the teachers and the unions.

The word “ruined” implies that at one time it was in good, even excellent, condition, but it no longer has any redeeming qualities. Both aspects of that assertion are flawed. In regards to past success, remember that Rudolph Flesch wrote “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in 1955. Additionally, Harvard researcher Dianne Ravitch has documented the perpetual ups and downs of public education in “Left Back: a Century of Failed Public School Reform.” Certainly, many schools in America have problems, and far too many inadequately educate their students. But ruined? No redeeming qualities? To quote Bill O’Reilly, “that’s ridiculous.”

There are countless examples of excellent public schools that are accomplishing more today with their students than I ever could have fathomed as a student twenty years ago – about the same time as the publication of that dire education warning “A Nation at Risk.” I know this because I teach at one. Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colorado, is regularly ranked as one the top high schools in the nation. Cherry Creek has an incredibly successful student population. Its large percentage of students in Advanced Placement classes, for which many teachers have pass rates on the national exam of 90% or more, regularly accomplish tasks I didn’t see until graduate school. Sean might want to take a look at the AP Calculus or European History exams before he decides that the system is in a state of “ruin.” Another example – a couple years ago two students at Cherry Creek were featured on ABC News for their work on a new treatment for muscular dystrophy. Their education is hardly in a state of “ruin.”

If you ask parents who send their children to Stevenson High School or New Trier High School in Chicago, Scarsdale High School in New York, Bellevue International School in Seattle, or Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Florida – not to mention others regularly ranked on Newsweek’s list of the Best 100 Schools – you will find people who are extremely satisfied with public education. Descriptions of the accomplishments of students at these schools are truly staggering, and they give me great hope for the future. Perhaps Sean might want to do some research into the successes of this “ruined” system.

At the same time that Sean was declaring public education “ruined,” Mort Zuckerman’s column in U.S. News and World Reports noted that “education is another great American success story.” According to Zuckerman, “nearly 90 percent of adults today complete high school compared with 33 percent in 1947.” Additionally, nearly 30 percent of the American population today has a college degree compared with 5 percent in 1947. That seems like some rather impressive progress. It’s hardly a ruined education system. While Americans regularly cite concerns about public schools, Gallup polls show seventy-five percent of Americans are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their children’s school. An even greater percentage of Americans (85%) are satisfied with their own education. So why all the criticism? Well, they’re obviously talking about other people’s schools. This disconnect is similar to the contrast between the low approval ratings of Congress and the regular re-election of incumbents.

Certainly, many teenagers can’t name the three branches of government or complete higher-level math. But how many could in 1947 when only 30 percent completed high school? While many adults are aghast at the students’ lack of knowledge, the kids aren’t much worse than some adults who end up as jokes on Jay Leno. These kids are often surprisingly knowledgeable in other areas, such as information technology, and they may very well acquire the historical information when they’re older. Keep in mind, they’re only seventeen, and there are many things they value more than the exact date of the Civil War. I’m not justifying the ignorance, just understanding it.

For someone who is regularly critical of people who hate America, Sean reveals a sad lack of faith in America’s youth, parents, teachers, communities, and the freedom the American government offers its schools. There are certainly failing schools in this country. Without doubt there are ineffective and even bad teachers who do nothing for their students. However, the failing schools and the ill-prepared students are as victimized by a myriad of socio-economic issues as they are by “the government.” Student performance is as affected by parental involvement and a neighborhood’s economics as it is by government policies. Does the education system have problems? Of course. But it’s far from ruined. When listening to Sean, I need to keep in mind that he also claimed the government has ruined the health care system, even though he regularly argues that America has the greatest health care system in the world. I guess the lesson for callers is that it’s a waste of time to argue with irrational people, or at least with “info-tainers” who make a living off of erroneous, inflammatory claims.

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