Having served as a college professor and administrator for 37 years, I long ago realized that public education—in spite of the billions spent on it—is failing America. Although I have done substantial research on this subject, the truth is I could have arrived at this conclusion without conducting any research. All I had to do was observe the academic shortcomings of the students who walked into my classroom every semester, shortcomings that seemed to just worsen each year. The difference in student preparation—not to mention motivation—between when I began teaching at the college level in 1975 and when I retired at the beginning of 2012 were stark; not that the preparation of high school graduates in 1975 was anything to brag about.
If you accept the contention that a high school graduate should be prepared to successfully pursue a college degree or enter the workforce or join the military, our country is in serious trouble. I could provide mountains of data to support this contention, but perhaps the most compelling evidence on this subject was provided by the testimony of Rachel Jeantel during the George Zimmerman trial. In response to questions from Zimmerman’s attorney, Jeantel mumbled barely coherent answers, had trouble stringing together complete sentences, often did not understand what she was being asked, and shocked the court by revealing she could not read cursive writing. At the time of her testimony, Rachel Jeantel was in 12th grade at Miami Norland Senior High School. In the era of “No Child Left Behind,” Ms. Jeantel was clearly left behind. Her case would be bad enough even if it were a rare exception. Unfortunately and it is not.
During the Zimmerman trial media commentators criticized Ms. Jeantel for her inability to communicate. Although there is no question that this young women is complicit in the series of failures that led to her illiteracy, the bigger culprit in this sad story is the public school system that promoted her year after year without requiring that she learn anything. Every year public schools throughout America turn out young people just like Jeantel who cannot read, write, speak, or calculate at a functional level.
Public education officials respond to criticism of poorly prepared high school graduates by claiming that they—the students—are complicit in their own failures. This, of course, is true. There are a lot of unmotivated students who go to school because they have to not because they want to learn. However, this fact does not justify the practice of promoting students who cannot read, write, speak, or calculate to grade levels that exceed their development levels. Students who cannot function academically at the fourth-grade level have no business being high school seniors much less being allowed to graduate. Schools that irresponsibly pass low-performing students steadily upward from grade to grade are failing not just those students and the taxpayers who pick up the tab for public education, they are failing America.
Rachel Jeantel and others like her are badly served by a public school system more intent on teaching vague concepts like social justice, politically-correct mush, and multi-cultural gibberish than reading, writing, and arithmetic. In today’s public schools self-esteem trumps self-discipline, inclusion trumps performance, and ovine compliance trumps critical thinking. Apparently, Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the George Zimmerman did not help the prosecution. But ironically it might have done America a favor. At least now we know what we are getting for the billions taxpayers spend on public education.