Candidate John Edwards has given his big education speech, in which he says in effect that the President's job, Constitution be damned, is to run every public school in the country. (Just you wait, private schools and foreign countries, just you wait...) And that's not all! He's also going to send everybody to college.
In general, America's education policy makers, like school board members, state legislators, Senator Kennedy, President Bush, and Candidate Edwards give the strong impression that they are unable to understand simple cause and effect reasoning about issues of selection in education, and instead rely upon wishful thinking and sentimentalism to make up laws and regulations off the top of their heads.
Consider, for example, the dropout problem in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest.
In LA public high schools, 9th grade classes are typically twice the size of 12th grade classes because half the students drop out.
Bizarrely, the LA school board has decided to attempt to raise the graduation rate by making it harder to graduate. This year's 9th grade class will be the first to be required to pass not just Algebra I and Geometry to graduate, but now they also must pass Algebra II. At at least one high school, I am told, the entering 9th graders weren't informed about this new requirement, on the grounds that once they hear about it, many would likely give up and dropout right away.
In the LA school district, only 7-8% of 9th graders get 1000 or higher on the SAT (Math plus Verbal, not Writing). That would be an 890 under the pre-1995 SAT scoring system.
The school board is also going to require an extra year of foreign language to graduate. This won't bother the Latinos all that much since Spanish is just about all they teach in LA anymore (there are only two German teachers left in the 700,000 student district), but will just hammer the graduation chances of African-Americans, who really dislike learning Spanish. For example, a lawyer who had been a protege of Johnnie Cochran told me in 2001 that only four out the 900 black LAPD officers speak Spanish.
The idea behind these changes is to make sure that LAUSD graduates are qualified to attend the elite University of California system, by requiring more of what UC calls A-G courses. Yet, by law, the UC system is reserved for the top 1/8th of California high school students. (The California State University system is aimed at the top 1/3rd, and the Community College system is open to everybody else.)
But, then, who cares about the other 7/8ths? I mean, why does anybody have to be in the lower 7/8ths? If we just stopped succumbing to the soft bigotry of low expectations, everybody could be part of the top 1/8th!
In reality, what we need are high school diplomas that are like the Oxford/Cambridge diplomas, where you take a big test at the end and are awards a First, Second, Third, or Pass degree. We have a lot of students for whom getting a Third in high school would be a major accomplishment, a goal for which they could strive, and just getting a Pass degree would at least represent to potential employers that they are reasonably tractable.