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I wish the writer would change the first paragraph to ask if schools are preparing students to live in a democracy. Then I'd agree with much of what he says. I agree about the liberal arts elite having a stranglehold on the curricula. Amen.

"Are schools preparing students to meet employers' needs?" Only 20% of 450 business and political leaders answered "yes" to the question, according to a survey cited last year in this newspaper.

Unless Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and the Bush administration free the curriculum from the control of academics and the majority of professional educators, changes in the No Child Left Behind high school initiatives are not likely to counter the woeful preparation of our high school students for living in the 21st century.

Focusing solely on higher academic standards fails to deal with the reality that most of what is taught, and the way it is taught and tested, does not help students develop the skills they need to pursue successful careers and become responsible citizens.

High schools students spend the bulk of their academic time mastering algebra rather than statistics, interpreting English literature rather than improving written communication, memorizing historical facts rather than developing a civic character, and studying scientific theory and definitions rather than applying scientific thinking and findings to health and environmental problems.

Our high school curriculum suffers for political reasons. Not political as in Democrat, Republican or independent. Curricula are produced by a liberal arts elite acting as academic interest groups.

These groups, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics or the Modern Language Association, seek to get their subject in the curricula as aggressively as Pepsi and Coca-Cola seek to get their products into school vending machines.

Unfortunately, the political inertia is rooted in longevity. For decades, college professors and their disciples who have taken up teaching have dictated curriculum. These individuals occupy positions of power on state government-sponsored curriculum committees that determine what is taught.

The idea of putting workplace and citizenship skills above specific content goals is not new to American education.

Ben Franklin saw a similar educational problem more than 250 years ago - students being taught subjects that were in Franklin's word "ornamental" rather than useful to them as workers and citizens. He was particularly agitated by the practice of teaching Latin when it was no longer necessary, since most of the great works were translated into English.

Franklin called for a reformed, practical curriculum of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, rhetoric, grammar, literature, history, drawing, handwriting, accounting, geography, morality, logic, natural history, mechanics and gardening.

He started a school in the 1750s for this educational purpose, which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Franklin was forced by the professional educators at the time to allow half of the curriculum to be in Latin. The Latinists took the school over, and Franklin withdrew his support after decades of frustration.

Educators still haven't learned their lessons. Can policies be developed to break the stranglehold that the liberal arts political machine has on our high school curriculum?

The question has more urgency today in such a competitive job environment and a time when there are so many challenges to our way of life.

Bill Coplin is a professor of public policy at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and its College of Arts and Sciences; he's the author of 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College.

— Bill Coplin
USA Today


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