Among the world's richest countries, South Korea has the best-educated students, according to a UNICEF study. Japan ranks second. The U.S. ranks 18th out of 24 nations.

The study analyzed tests of 14 and 15-year-olds' reading, math and science performance. The results didn't correlate with spending on education, class size or other school-based factors.

"It is clear that educational disadvantage is born not at school but in the home," said the report. "Learning begins at birth" and is fostered by "a loving, secure, stimulating environment."

It's pretty obvious that Asian culture plays an important role too.

A Typical School

Teachers and parents are complaining about violence, robbery, drinking, drug use, truancy, threats to teachers and prostitutes operating out of the boys' restrooms at Washington Prep High School in South Central Los Angeles. The principal says the problems are typical of large urban schools. But he denies there are prostitutes working at the school.

When they say "prep" I wonder: Prepared for what?

Push-Outs

New York City schools are boosting the percentage of students passing the Regents exams and earning a diploma -- by "discharging" the worst students. A high school can boost its graduation rate by sending problem students to a GED or adult ed program. The students are counted as transfers, not drop-outs. Administrators get a bonus for good stats. Newsday reports:

Two years ago the issue began raising red flags among parents of displaced teenagers and professional advocates, when the problem ballooned due to the introduction of higher test standards and an increase in the credits required for graduation. Students began flooding adult education and GED programs, quadrupling the waiting lists in some cases.

"We always had students dropping out and coming to us, but now, students are being referred by guidance counselors and attendance teachers, and they come with their referral slips," said Edith Gnanadass, deputy executive director of the Turning Point/Discipleship Outreach Ministry in Brooklyn, which works with discharged students. "They were being pushed out rather than dropping out."

Some of these students shouldn't be in a regular high school. They need a program geared to their needs that will get them to a diploma or a GED. But giving bonuses to principals who give up on problem students is unwise.

Guess What's Back in Style?

Teaching spelling and penmanship can improve student's writing, according to several new studies. Education Week reports:

Both experts believe that early and explicit instruction in spelling and penmanship can stave off many problems later on in 3rd and 4th grade, when children tackle more complex writing tasks.

What's more, they add, educators shouldn't expect computers to solve all of their students' "text transcription" problems. Keyboards can be slow going for beginning writers, they note. Studies also show that computerized spell-checkers fail to catch about half of students' misspellings.

It makes sense when you think about it. A student who's struggling to spell words or form letters is going to avoid writing, and won't have opportunities to improve in sentence structure, grammar or fluency.

Teachers don’t spend much time these days on spelling and penmanship. Both require diligent practice, which is out of favor.

A Denver parent writes that when her son was in third grade, students chose words they wanted to learn to spell and were tested by their parents. This was more "relevant and meaningful."

This teacher was the same one who told the parent advisory committee that I was serving on that standardized tests were just an outrageous waste of time because her third graders could not even read the questions and she had to read the test questions to most of her students. Of course, she was our school's nominee for the state teacher of the year award.

Reading questions to students is cheating.

Letters

John E. Bloodgood, MSgt., U.S. Air Force, writes:

I deal with kids after they graduate school and join the military... I have kids who cannot write. I have kids who cannot read. I have kids who do not know how to study. I have kids who don't know how to think, analyze or apply logic.

Whether it is a supervisor writing a performance report on his troops, a technician filling out a job ticket, or someone preparing interoffice correspondence, the writing skills of most people seem to be poor. Given instructions written in outline form at a 9th grade level, people routinely fail to comprehend the instructions.

For over a decade now a large part of my job has been teaching these basic skill sets to enlisted military members and to the occasional officer.

Schools and teachers have to know that what they are teaching are the tools people need to survive after graduation.

Scott P. Anderson, MSgt., U.S. Air Force (ret.), says:

I was an instructor in the Air Force for seven years. I really love teaching and wanted to pursue a career in teaching after retiring. I changed my mind, however, after examining my daughters' school systems. I guess the Air Force's view on technical training spoiled me:

a) Any student late for class was verbally counseled the first time. Subsequent tardies escalated to letters of counseling, letters of reprimand, Article 15 action (non-judicial punishment) and removal from the class. God help you if you missed a class and weren't at sick call.

b) Basic courses have a minimum passing grade of 80 percent; more advanced or demanding classes have a minimum passing of 85 percent. The basic logic on this is to ask the question, "Would you want someone working on your aircraft who was only correct in what they did 65 to 70 percent of the time?"

c) Courses for enlisted personnel is written at the eighth to ninth grade level, whenever possible, to compensate for the public school system shortfalls, in spite of the fact that almost 100 percent of enlisted folks have a high school diploma. The content is divided into categories, according to the level of knowledge required (from "must know basic facts" to "must be able to use previously learned material in new and concrete situations").

d) Tests and quizzes are written to eliminate "guessing to a good grade." Enlisted personnel see mostly multiple-choice questions, while officers see mostly fill-in-the-blank, written answer and essay questions.

e) Enlisted personnel are usually offered one chance to retest and pass a test after a failure. The retest is only allowed after the student is academically counseled and a period of intense, documented study time. If they fail the retest, their future in that class is bleak and probably over...

I thought I could take what I knew and used in teaching in the Air Force and apply it as a teacher at a middle or high school. After all I saw and heard at my daughters' schools, I changed my mind. I wouldn't make it through my first year without being fired for my zero-tolerance attitude. What would probably also sink me, is my disgust with the PC feel-good approach I see in public schools everywhere. I wanted to teach both history and geography, but these are areas rife with this non-learning format.

Melissa Maye, Yorkville, Ill., writes:

I was listening to talk radio on my way home -- a failing of mine, but at least I haven't threatened Tom Daschle yet -- when a caller said that such-and-such percent of students cannot find Iraq on a map. His comment was, "Whether or not someone can find a country on a map or not has nothing to do with whether or not he is good in geography."

The guy's profession? Geography teacher!

Try as I might, I could not think of anything else that geography is other than pointing out where a country is on the map. If you can't do that, you are, by definition, "bad at geography." Is there a warm and fuzzy, geopolitical or psychological component to geography of which I am unaware?

J. Smith of Brandon, Miss., says:

Sometimes I need to be reminded of why I homeschool my kids! They can read, write, spell, add and subtract. They can find the USA, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Africa, Brazil, Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea on a globe. They know who Augustine, Martin Luther, George Washington, Patrick Henry and Edward Rutledge were, and can identify quotes by several of them. I could tell you more, but I don't want to brag. Oh, and did I mention that they are 7 and (almost) 6?

Logan Cleek writes:

Every time I turn around I read something that makes me happy and relieved that my wife and I home school our three boys. It's not easy, but at least they are being educated. The youngest boy who is five CAN find Iraq on a map. All out of our own pockets, I might add, in addition to the taxes we pay to finance "public school".

Robyn Bailey Orchard, an eighth grade English teacher, Indiana, Pa., says:

I am happy to be held accountable for my teaching. I welcome observations of my class, inspection of the materials I use and my evaluation techniques, and the content of my course. But why hold me accountable for my students' learning? I cannot control their ability, attendance, effort or attitude.

Why can't achievement scores be correlated to ability scores? Sharp discrepancies could be a reasonable indication that something is amiss in a school, but holding a teacher's career hostage to the willingness of a bunch of teenagers to do their best on a single test is ludicrous. Why should a student care about his score when there is no consequence for him, only for me, his teacher?

We're beginning to look at improving the quality of teachers in order to improve the quality of education. I heartily endorse this, as I would like teaching to follow the example of medicine and law by requiring three to four years of graduate work, extensive interning and rigorous examinations before earning a license; ideally, teachers would also earn a similar salary to doctors and lawyers as well.

However, another way to dramatically improve the quality of education is to improve the quality of our students. Holding students (and their parents) accountable for meeting standards by tying tests to promotion, graduation requirements or drivers' licenses might be an incentive if education for the sake of education isn't enough.

If we could weed out those who waste our time by being disruptive and non-productive and simply teach those who are willing to do the best with what they have between their ears, we would have the best educated population in the world. Without the losers (who don't learn anyway), those who were previously held back could reach their fullest potential. Actually, that public schools do as much as they do, in spite of all the bureaucracy and reluctant learners, is really amazing.

Michael Zerger writes:

When I last taught classes, I informed students that my grading scale worked like this. Correct answers get you a "C." Being right is the expected norm. Elegant solutions get you a "B." Elegant answers that are well documented are worth an "A." If a student more junior than the one doing the work can't understand the solution from the documentation, then either the solution or documentation is inadequate and not worthy of an "A."

Bob Ranney says:

I loved your column, but differ on the value of Jurassic Park as a reading assignment. My eldest son was taught to read with McGuffey readers and became quite proficient. He became an enthusiastic reader in the fourth grade after I gave him Jurassic Park to read. The book is wonderfully written with great imagery, strong characters and a suspenseful plot. Reading became a source of enjoyment superior to movies. He was hooked.

He is now studying (on a full scholarship) to be a surgeon, and has made nothing less than an" A" since he picked up Jurassic Park.

Bill Goff, Columbia, S.C., writes:

When my daughter was in the seventh grade, I noticed she had an enrichment class scheduled for the afternoon. When I asked what they were going to be doing, I was informed that one group would be painting restrooms and the other doing landscaping. I explained to the teacher that I felt my daughter's time in school should be spent being "enriched" in reading, writing and math. I had to go to the vice-principal to get her changed to math "enrichment."

The eighth and ninth grades were a revelation in what the educators consider education. English classes for two days were spent watching Harry Potter, which she already had at home. Her writing and geography have required a lot of help, and I got her a tutor to get her through algebra.

She makes the honor roll but I question the quality of education being received.

Joel Everett says:

I spent four years on staff at a high school and now attend a fine arts college. I share your alarm and distress at the current level of education in our public school system. I was amazed at the poor writing by high school students in a class I assisted with. I’m dismayed further at the complaints I hear from my college classmates about what is expected of them on class papers. People simply don't seem to know how to write well, nor do they appear to have adequate attention spans for reading classical literature, or the vocabulary to comprehend such literature.

While multimedia tools such as television, CD-ROMs, computers and other media may provide enough action to grab an individual’s attention, they certainly do not teach real academic skills.

It is time that we stop being "politically correct" and start being "academically correct."

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at JoanneJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

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