GUARANTEED OUTCOMES!

Several widely divergent concepts have lately pulled at me to try to tie together. I will probably fail but, as Teddy Roosevelt movingly wrote, credit must be given to the men who sweat, strive and fail in the arena, not those who remain safely outside and find fault with the combatants. I will try.

The first is a recent column from a testy, tell-it-like-it-is maverick named Charlie Reese. Charlie extrapolated from the phrase, all men are created equal, an important premise in the Declaration of Independence, and perceptively updated it to the currently unstated, somewhat hazy desire for guaranteed outcomes. He did it very well, and his article is certainly worth reading. The second bit of information that has gnawed at my sense of what is right is the fact that of those who pay income tax, 10% of the filers pay 62.4% of the taxes. Looked at another way, ten percent of the people who work carry just about two thirds of the income tax load for everyone in America. The third is a statement by presidential candidate Bill Bradley, who the media in general, and Al Gore in particular, are now taking very seriously, that medical insurance and care should immediately be extended to all children from birth. Bradley said that about eleven million American children right now had no medical insurance and were being given only marginal medical care. The fourth is a combination of scattered facts about education: a study that said only a fourth of the children tested met the standard for writing an article, which included spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure; a local flap in Brevard county about taking calculators away from children during arithmetic and mathematics tests; and finally a discussion about school vouchers that allow parents to withdraw their children from unacceptable public schools and enroll them in private schools. In retrospect, can anyone beside myself see a common thread in this melange of unrelated ideas? Give me a moment.

Charlie Reese pointed out our constitution contains as its basic tenet the belief all men are created equal, that is, there are no positions of high birth that provide statutory advantages for some that the rest lack. Depending on their inherent abilities, the care and instruction they receive at home, parental expectations, and how hard they work at school, children will grow into adults with varying skill levels and educational accomplishments. As adults, in spite of these disparities, they will still all be equal in the eyes of the law. Men, and by implication, women, won't be equal in their knowledge, occupations, professional qualifications, or incomes, but they will all have one vote and the same rights. That is the extent of it.

In the eyes of our Founding Fathers, men were free to seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as they wished. Sturdy and independent, they were free to succeed, but they were also free to fail. Nowhere in our constitution can be found even a whisper of guaranteed outcomes. A nation of farmers understood there would be good years and there would be bad years: all a man could do was work hard and accept the limitations imposed by providence and his own abilities. But men would be free to make their own choices, move anywhere in America, vote, and would never be forced to use the word sir to address a man they did not respect.

One emerging outgrowth of this philosophy of equal opportunity for all was free public schools, which were to provide a solid, continuous stream of educated, competent, and self-reliant citizens. America's economic progress, as well as its defense, was based on the raising of able, honest, patriotic, intelligent and progressive-minded young adults who would mature and take the place of their elders. At this juncture, Charlie's discussion of guaranteed outcomes, the extraordinarily heavy income tax load carried by ten percent of our wage earners, Bill Bradley's proposal of immediate medical insurance for all children, and the plethora of deficiencies in our public school system, all come together. There may be those who disagree with me, but I devoutly believe America's, and indeed any country's, most precious resource is its children.

It seems to me that in the last two decades our modern world has become more, rather than less, knowledge intensive. The income disparity among our workers has greatly increased because the number of good-paying, blue collar manufacturing jobs has diminished by the millions. As automation has simplified assembly, technology has been exported overseas to take advantage of cheap, non-union labor. While our country is now experiencing record employment, the majority of the new jobs created have been in service industries. Two-worker families are now required to bring home the income necessary to maintain our desired, advertising promoted, higher standard of living. With more than half the people in our country having less than $1,000 in assets, it does seem that the vastly increased prosperity of the past decade has not been shared by the poor and working classes. Far from what was envisioned by our constitutional framers, America is not a nation of predominantly middle-class, independent citizens, most of whom contribute to the general welfare. Instead, it has become a polarized society of a relatively few affluent haves living in gate-guarded residential areas surrounded by a struggling middle class of perhaps 35%, beyond which marginally lives a vast horde of 55% have-nots. This latter group lives almost hand-to- mouth, without any real security, and while credit makes available cars, homes, TVs, and the other material things we consider essential, they are one pay check away from bankruptcy. I suppose that's the way the human race has always lived, but we'd hoped to do better in our American experiment with democracy.

The single most important leavening factor that might level the playing field in a generation or two is education. In my view, each child must be afforded the opportunity to advance as far as his or her potential will permit. Those who don't will be consigned indifferently, and perhaps unfairly, to the economic underclass. Without an excellent education, social mobility, difficult under the best of circumstances, is virtually impossible. Athletes, successful entertainers, and those who live often short and dangerous lives outside the law dealing in drugs or other contraband, are the few exceptions to the general rule. It seems obvious to an old gray head that if you're not born athletically gifted, grow seven feet tall, have musical talent or a great voice, and are too honest to be a crook, you'd better study hard. Unfortunately, this seeming fact is about as hard to get across to our young as the notion they should never smoke that first cigarette.

Eleven hundred words of self-conscious preaching have brought me to the point at which most people begin: what do we do about it! Dumping our public school system hardly seems to make sense, though I understand it appears to be failing our young from many important points of view. Someone wise recently told me the trouble with our schools was womens' wide acceptance into the labor force and the professions. His point, and naturally, it was a man who voiced it, was that the old-maid school teachers who fervently drummed learning into my resisting skull, were now lawyers, doctors, CPAs, or business managers. Our grammar and high school teachers were often first-rate, dedicated, highly capable women with formidable intellects, women who were able with the principals' help to actually also enforce discipline. Most of them are gone, replaced today with intellectually less able teachers in a very squishy environment of minimal discipline. My eldest son, Brad, ran for, and had the bad luck to be elected as an Ann Arbor, MI, school board member. Consequently, I've heard some of the real problems faced by grammar school teachers, administrators, and school board members. I'd like to summarize my own, not his, thoughts on the matter.

Our teacher's unions are too strong for anyone to insist that teachers be academically qualified in the subjects they teach before putting them into a classroom. Instead, they receive a mishmash of teaching- education courses that have little and frequently no academic content in science and mathematics, or even computer competence. Administrators now have far too much authority over classroom routine, and have been cowed to abide by what is politically correct. Civil libertarians and religious groups, including the atheists once headed by Madeleine O'Hare, have taken ethics, any feeling that religion is important in everyday life, and the subject of God from the classroom. The sociologists have watered-down intellectual rigor and tough subjects with social promotion and feel-good, self-esteem building. Worst of all, perhaps, too many parents have ceased to teach children much at home or to really care about their progress in school: they fail to tell children how important education is in life and have minimal expectations of them. All of these elements have combined to badly degrade much of America's public school system into a vast, expensive exercise in mediocrity and babysitting.

I say much of, because parts of it are still quite good. My own three children went through the public school system. One of them has his doctorate in condensed matter and surface physics. He teaches physics at the University of Michigan. Another has her doctorate in sociology from Berkeley. She teaches sociology at the University of Syracuse. The third has his master's in the mathematics of finance from the University of Chicago, and is working in the private sector. Two of the three also went to public colleges for their undergraduate degrees: the University of Minnesota, and the University of Florida. I tried to put them in the best schools I could find whenever I was transferred or changed jobs by following a simple rule. We inquired which were the best school districts, visited them, asked questions and talked with administrators and teachers about their curriculum, then moved into whatever house in that district my modest engineer's salary could handle.

It seems incredible that the concepts my wife and I tried to emphasize most to our children, besides the primary feeling we loved each of them, are now anathema to our educational system. Merit, academic achievement, personal responsibility, and individual freedom of expression have become dirty words and are politically incorrect, even though our nation was formed on those ideals. That is tragic!

Is there any way to change the status quo of America's educational system, and how could it be accomplished? Yes, there is, though it will take more than hand waving and feel-good sentiments.

Do not elect any candidate sponsored by the NEA or other teacher's union. That may be tough on poor old Al Gore, but properly educating our children is more important than political parties.

Set up standardized tests for 4th , 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. As a nation, we don't care how it's taught, but we want grammar and high schools to be held responsible for teaching students how to read, spell, do arithmetic, write an acceptable essay, have sufficient mathematics background to lead into higher education, some degree of computer literacy, an academic understanding of science, particularly physics and chemistry, world geography, and to show students it is not only fun to learn but a lifelong task.

Set and enforce disciplinary standards, and force our principals to administer them. Mandate toilet training before a student is accepted into kindergarden, end social promotion and the concept that self-esteem is more important than academic excellence, or that self-esteem can be earned by mediocre performance. Flag students who are failing any grade by mid-semester, and provide one-on-one assistance.

Each local school system will acquire a volunteer corps of bright, qualified retirees, segmented by subject, who will be assigned one-on-one responsibility for aiding failing students. Many retirees feel the system has been very good to them, and are looking for a way to repay the system. Pay may take the form of income tax deductions for time worked, or something as simple as an annual Thank You banquet.

Enlist the national media to help parents understand how important education will be to their children. Work to increase parental expectations of their children, teaching at home, responsibility for a quiet setting in which homework may be done, and the need of parents to verify their children's homework is done. Show parents that discipline at home translates into discipline at school. Lack of it at home leads to unruly classrooms in which little can be taught.

Though it is a difficult task, reward scholastic excellence by attempting to put it on a par with athletic excellence.

11/15/99

Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)