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Academic Slums By: Walter Williams
The Washington Times | Friday, December 28, 2007


Every three years, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a set of tests that measure 15-year-olds' performance in mathematics, science and reading.

The National Center for Education Statistics summarized the findings in "Highlights From PISA 2006." American students ranked 33rd among industrialized countries in math literacy, and in science literacy, they ranked 27th. Reading literacy was not reported for the United States because of an error in the test instruction booklets.

How do we get out of this mess of abysmal student performance? Presidential hopeful Barack Obama has proposed an $18 billion increase in federal education programs. That's the typical knee-jerk response — more money. Let's delve a bit, asking whether higher educational expenditures explain why secondary school students in 32 industrialized countries are better at math and science than ours. In 2004, the United States spent about $9,938 per secondary school student. More money might explain why Swiss and Norwegian students do better than ours because they, respectively, spent $12,176 and $11,109 per student. But what about Finland ($7,441) and South Korea ($6,761), which scored first and second in math literacy? What about the Slovak Republic ($2,744) and Hungary ($3,692), as well as other nations whose education expenditures are a fraction of ours and whose students have greater math and science literacy than ours?

American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university. As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest academic respect. If we were serious about efforts to improve public education, one of the first things we would do is eliminate schools of education.

The inability to think critically makes educationists fall easy prey to harebrained schemes, and what's worse, they don't have the intelligence to recognize the harebrained scheme isn't working. Just one of many examples is the use of fuzzy math teaching techniques found in "Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers." Among its topics: "Sweatshop Accounting," "Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood," "Multicultural Math" and "Home Buying While Brown or Black." The latter contains discussions on racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media and environmental racism.

If you have a fifth-grader, his textbook might be "Everyday Math." Among its study questions are: If math were a color, it would be (blank) because (blank). If it were a food, it would be (blank) because (blank). If it were weather, it would be (blank) because (blank). All this is sheer nonsense, and what's worse is that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics sponsors and supports much of this nonsense.

Mathematics, more than any other subject, is culturally neutral. The square root of 16 is 4 whether you're Asian, European or African, or even Plutonian or Martian. While math and science literacy among white 15-year-olds is nothing to brag about, among black 15-year-olds it is nothing less than a disaster.

Few people appreciate the implications of poor math preparation. Mathematics, more than anything else, teaches one how to think logically. As such, it is an important intellectual tool. If one graduates from high school with little or no preparation in algebra, geometry and a bit of trigonometry, he is likely to find whole areas of academic study, as well as the highest-paying jobs, hermetically sealed off from him for life.


Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., and a syndicated columnist.


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