Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

July 26, 2011

Will America heed warning signs from public education?

Mike Hinkle
CNHI News Service

Edmond, Oklahoma — According to tradition, King Louis XV knew France was sliding toward destruction. The vibrant empire handed down by previous kings was trembling on its foundations. When his advisers implored him to take corrective action, he is said to have replied, “Après moi, le deluge” — After me comes the flood.

Some interpret this to mean Louis was content to enjoy his inheritance during his lifetime. If his failure to act responsibly wound up ruining everything for his descendants, well, too bad for them.

Louis’ comment, along with the legend that Nero fiddled while Rome burned, represents history’s indictment of those who fully appreciate the gravity of looming catastrophe, but selfishly pursue their own pleasure knowing a future generation must necessarily bear the crushing weight of their incompetence.

This is on my mind as a couple of news items suggest that America’s educational system may be trembling on this foundation. We’ve been warned.

Item No. 1: Suspicions of widespread cheating in Atlanta’s schools led to an investigation that uncovered the most extensive overflowing of institutional corruption in the history of public education. Investigators discovered that teachers and administrators in almost half those districts were fraudulently changing students’ test scores to make it appear that schools were meeting educational targets.

The trail of dishonesty leads all the way to the office of Dr. Beverly Hall, Atlanta’s recently retired superintendent of schools.

We don’t know whether this institutional fraud infects other schools in other parts of the nation. But there is something monstrous about the idea that people who play such a pivotal role in the shaping of young lives are so willing to sell their professional souls for a bunch of phony test scores.

Item No. 2: The Council of State Governments recently released a report summarizing the results of a study following the progress of every seventh-grader entering the Texas public schools for three years. The study covered nearly 1 million students from seventh-grade through high school and in some cases, beyond. It found that 31 percent of Texas students were expelled or suspended from school at least once during their middle and high school years. One in seven of these would ultimately be subject to disciplinary measures at least 11 times. Minority students were more likely “than whites” to face serious discipline.

As a group, students who received more severe forms of discipline were less likely to graduate and more likely to be involved in criminal activity.

Michael Thompson, director of The Justice Center at the Council of State Governments, headed the study. In his words, “In the last 20 or 25 years, there have been dramatic increases in the number of suspensions and expulsions.” These findings are not confined to Texas. Professor Russ Skiba of Indiana University, a prominent researcher reviewing the study believes these results, are “very much representative of the nation as a whole.”

Review of these items forces us to ask troubling questions. For example: How likely is it that other schools are plagued by the same corruption infecting the Atlanta system? What do we have to do to find out? If our worst fears are realized, how are we going to fix it?

As for the intensifying levels of discipline being administered by teachers across the country, will we shrug it off as evidence of a new breed of stricter American teachers? Or is there something more sinister occurring in our classrooms? Are American students becoming more defiant and difficult to control?

We can, of course, trivialize the importance of the situation in Atlanta. We may disagree with the implications of the Council of State Government study. And, in the end, we may be right to simply brush all this aside and “let it sort itself out.” But if we’re wrong, future historians will write: “The collapse of the American educational system didn’t occur overnight. There were ample warning signs. But the once vigorous American population, inexplicably, fiddled while their schools burned.”

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Mike Hinkle is a columnist for The Edmond (Okla.) Sun.