Education reform that makes sense

At very great expense for all, Ohio’s education reform makes too little sense. Everyone agrees on the importance of a well-informed and highly-skilled citizenry in a democratic society, but who should decide the lower limits of “well-informed” or “highly skilled” and the privileges accompanying such “achievements”? Many well-meaning politicians believe we need a laser focus on academics, as if how high/low we set the bar can magically make everyone either a dunce or a genius, but this is not true. On the other hand, if we are serious about a highly-skilled workforce, then why aren’t we beefing up our skilled trades’ curricula instead of punishing every district in Ohio with a complex array of academic standards juggling and hoop-jumping acts?

By definition, according to psychologists, “half of the people at any given time will always have below average intelligence.” Therefore, no matter what reforms or goals we set for our children, half of them will still have below average scores on standardized tests and there is nothing wrong with this fact of life. Consequently, it makes sense to swap the word education with the word “amelioration,” meaning “the process of improving.” Society can, as a whole, raise our average test scores compared with other nations and even past and future generations of Americans, but it is impossible for a majority of Americans to become “above average.” Once we’ve adjusted to this reality we’ll need to work on setting realistic goals for the state of public amelioration in America, keeping in mind that higher education is not a good fit for everyone.

Besides, “education” is an outdated word derived from two words, exo- “to bring forth” and ducere- “the leaders.” In a literal sense it means “puffing up the leaders” which is what educational systems the world over have done very well for centuries. From the earliest public school systems until now, the enterprise of education was intended to separate the chaff from the wheat. Historically in America, unless you were Black, public education was a more democratic process than having monarchies and royal bloodlines determine who would lead us. Nonetheless, education around the world has always served, functionally at least, as institutions for the elite. That’s why less than 7 percent of the world holds a college degree today.

Clearly then, the 1983 Reagan Administration’s education report “A Nation at Risk” should not be taken at face value. First of all, the report made it sound as though the goal of education in America was the creation of a utopian society where advanced education for every American child was of paramount importance: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war,” the report said, “As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.” Interestingly, the key word, mediocre, in Reagan’s incendiary statement actually means average. So, to paraphrase the reports’ most alarming findings: “Public schools have become a grave threat to national security because America’s average students are receiving average test scores.” What did they expect to find?

Then, to add insult to injury, Reagan’s report exploited a statistical paradox and the media ran with it, citing it millions of times over the last 30 years, as a hard data reason for education reform. They didn’t bother to explain how every subgroup of American schoolchildren experienced measured growth on standardized tests in the decade preceding 1983, the year the report was published, even while the overall national average ACT score dropped as more and more minorities and low income families applied to colleges for the first time ever. These findings should have been a reason to celebrate America’s “public amelioration system”, instead we got a punch in the teeth and a knee in the gut.

If you have been alive during the last 30 years, you have heard the media declare how horrible our public schools are today. Naturally, the 30-year lambasting has brought about an expensive array of education reform that has failed to make the USA into a utopian society where almost everybody is a leader with an “above-average” IQ and an advanced college degree. Maybe, just maybe, the reason it didn’t work is because it’s perfectly normal for 50 percent of the people to be below average and 50 percent above?

Education reform in Ohio has materialized into 15 years of some 300 or so for-profit (free market) charter schools that have brought public education to its knees. Early critics of for-profit schools wondered if Wall St. profits would be prioritized over schoolchildren. The answer is yes; even the worst inner city public schools have a better graduation rate than the average online charter school. We should be outraged to know all of this wasted Ohio tax money is leaving our state to make hedge fund managers on Wall St. richer while causing catastrophic financial instability in local school districts.

School reform that makes sense supports public education, rather than placing the burden of irrelevant and unrealistic expectations on every school in Ohio. If we want a more informed citizenry, we need to unify our entire culture in that purposeful direction and support the institutions we’ve endowed with the means to achieve that end. If we want a more highly-skilled workforce, we may need to double the number of “average” schoolchildren enrolled in trade schools. And if we all work together towards realistic goals, we might actually achieve what everybody wants and Ohio needs.

Herman is a Howland resident. Email him at