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Education chief gets an F

Jack Kelly explains why President Obama would have been wiser to choose someone other than the former Chicago superintendent of schools as his attack dog.

This is not to praise Kelly's execrable column--just to say that Duncan's record in Chicago leaves him very vulnerable and certainly, Obama could have done better.

By Jack Kelly

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been a presidential candidate for barely two weeks, but already polls indicate he's even with President Barack Obama. So the administration trotted out Education Secretary Arne Duncan to knock him down a peg.

Texas schools have "really struggled" under Gov. Perry, Mr. Duncan told Bloomberg's Al Hunt Aug. 18. "Far too few of their high school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college ... I feel really badly for the children there."

It's cheesy for a Cabinet officer to be so political. But that's not why Mr. Obama shouldn't have used the former Chicago superintendent of schools as his attack dog.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, fourth- and eighth-graders in Texas score substantially better in reading and math than do their counterparts in Chicago. The high school graduation rate in Texas (73 percent) is much better than Chicago's (56 percent). Mr. Duncan's charges were recycled. "In low-tax, low-spending Texas, the kids are not all right," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in March.

States like Texas which do not permit teachers to bargain collectively rank lowest on college admission tests, The Economist said in February. Unionized Wisconsin ranks second. This statistic uses a questionable methodology, said Politifact.

The most important factor in a state's ranking is the size of its minority population, because white students score much higher than do blacks or Hispanics, noted businessman David Burge, the Internet humorist "Iowahawk," in an epic fisking of Mr. Krugman and The Economist. Only when results are broken down by race can accurate comparisons be made.

The NAEP does this, providing 18 measures of student achievement. Texas surpassed Wisconsin in 17, the national average in all, Mr. Burge noted.

High school dropout rates in Texas are lower than the national average for all ethnic groups, lower for blacks than in Wisconsin, Mr. Burge said.

Newsweek publishes annually a list of the high schools which do the best job of preparing students for college. This year, 500 schools (of about 6,000 in the U.S.) were ranked. The top two, three of the top 10, 14 of the top 100 are in Texas.

Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Iowa combined had one school in the top 10, 12 in the top 100. Last year, Newsweek ranked 1,734 schools. Fifty-five were in Illinois, 28 in Wisconsin -- and 136 in Texas.

Nine of the top 10 are in states George W. Bush won in 2004. "The extraordinary achievement of so many red state schools strongly supports the idea that blue state governance is no friend to excellence in education," said Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead.

This should surprise no one. Teacher unions have made it clear that lining their pockets is more important to them than educating children -- especially minority children. Blacks and Hispanics did better on NAEP tests in Texas than in Wisconsin, where black fourth-graders had the worst reading scores in the country.

In a 2009 study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science, 31st in math. Our reading and science scores were near the OECD average, our math scores significantly below it.

At about 40 percent more than the OECD average, we're a world leader only in per pupil spending.

The cost of K-12 education rose from $50,000 in 1970 to $150,000 today, in dollars adjusted for inflation. Reading and math scores have been flat during that time. Science scores declined.

More than 80 percent of our public schools may fail to clear the low bar for student achievement set by the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Duncan said.

We should respond to these dismal outcomes by increasing federal spending, President Obama said in a speech in North Carolina in December.

And we shouldn't try so hard to hold teachers and administrators accountable, Mr. Duncan said.

We'd be wiser to junk a system that produces so little at so much expense. The massive cheating scandals by teachers and administrators in Atlanta and Baltimore indicate how corrupt it is.

The unionization, centralization and politicization of education may have been the biggest mistake we've made in the last half-century. We should take control of schools away from unions and Washington bureaucrats, and restore it to parents and local governments.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com)

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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