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[Susan notes: Three cheers for this history teacher who points out a few economic facts to the Standardistas.]

Published in Education Week

To the editor

To the Editor:

Commentary writers Michael Cohen, Chester E. Finn Jr., and Kati Haycock want students to fear that there is no job future for them unless they do better. But after 20 years, it’s an old story. Any fool can raise standards. That simple solution doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. Those who do the real work of education don’t need to be driven by fear to improve. No matter how frightened teachers and students might be, the question still remains: How can teaching and learning improve?

Global competition did more than require new skills for employees—it took away from many middle-class and working people the financial flexibility to invest in education. Now parents must carefully calculate how they spend the education dollar. They can’t afford the field-of-dreams delusion that if they spend $40,000 for a college degree, "the job will come." Now they can only afford to prepare for jobs that will actually exist.

Your essayists declare that there are "jobs that pay enough to support a family above the poverty level." Great. What are they? How many are there? Are we training a hundred students to fill 10 job slots? They don’t say.

Thoughtful critics can drive a truck through that hole in their argument—and truck drivers aren’t required to have a high-standards education or an expensive college degree to earn an above-poverty-level income. They are required to know a great deal about driving trucks—a skill that is not taught in any public, K-12 school today.

A recent U.S. Department of Labor study projects that by 2008, only 20 jobs out of 100 in America will require a college education. Yet, Ms. Haycock and Messrs. Finn and Cohen seem to be pushing more students, rather than fewer, to get a college education. Investments in high standards for student work and rigorous preparation for college must do more than feather the nests of college professors, universities, and education foundations.

Parents and students, like others, expect a return on the educational dollar they invest. It’s a family economic disaster to invest in a college degree for which a foreign competitor has already taken the job. The large amounts of money spent must lead to something other than the unemployment line for those with high expectations.

New injections of fear won’t help parents and students get the unemployment message. They got it. They don’t need another round of high standards to prove that they are failures. What they need is a direct line to employment in existing jobs. What they should expect is a commitment from business to support their efforts to continue their education while they are working.

Bill Harshbarger, Illinois history teacher

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