What Should Children Learn?

Lead Poisoning

Paul Gagnon's "What Should Children Learn?" (December Atlantic) is merely the latest bashing of American schools by someone who does not work in them.

Gagnon's reference to "our 25 percent dropout rate" is erroneous. In fact 83 percent of U.S. students graduate on time. Another four percent obtain GEDs, and another four percent return to obtain a diploma after initially dropping out.

And they are not merely being socially promoted on the basis of seat time. Many achievement-test scores are at all-time highs, many trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are at all-time highs, the proportion of students scoring above 650 on the math SAT is at an all-time high, and the number of students taking advanced-placement tests has quintupled since 1978. American students finished second among thirty-one nations in a 1992 study of reading skills, and their 90th, 95th, and 99th percentiles were the largest in the world.

Gagnon is at best functioning as a sophist when he says that the Committee of Ten called for a rigorous curriculum "for all high school students whether or not they were going to college." That's true, but the committee knew that in 1894 only seven percent of age-eligible students were even enrolled in high school. Gagnon chides Life Adjustment education for being anti-intellectual, but at least its advocates were trying to cope with 100 percent of the population.

Gerald W. Bracey

The pretense of neutrality undermines Paul Gagnon's case in "What Should Children Learn?" It is precisely the notion of a fixed human nature that historical revisionism rejects. That is why a content-based history organized around agreed-upon standards is impossible as long as the academy and the educational bureaucracy and unions are under the control of leftists who operate on the assumptions that humanity is infinitely malleable, that there are no "origins," that there are no "essentials of U.S. or world history" (no masterpieces, no authentically seminal events, no heroes, no individuals of global significance outside savage "cults of personality"), that history is written by the winners to legitimize their status in an elitist hierarchy, and that "history has no subject" aside from pure power relations.

Omar Ramo

Paul Gagnon's proposal that education reform be returned to the local level because of the failure to develop national standards is faulty from the beginning.

In the first place, he assumes, incorrectly, that the national public education system is controlled by a gargantuan bureaucracy of mindless educators, which he euphemistically refers to as the "educational establishment." In fact education in this country is in the hands of the more than 100,000 lay persons who sit on the autonomous boards of some 16,000 local school districts. The average tenure of superintendents who offer professional leadership to policymaking boards is about seven years--a fact that belies the assumption that educators are in charge.

Public schools in this country are little more than reflections of the quality of life in the communities they serve. Any measure of academic standards applied to students can be highly correlated to a number of economic, cultural, ethnic, and political factors that profile the community where those students attend school. Expecting schools to reform society is like asking a mirror to improve the images it reflects.

Bob D. Whetstone

I could not agree more strongly with Paul Gagnon's argument that the original draft of the history standards (I have not seen the latest revision) placed far too much emphasis on matters not central to the role of a U.S. citizen in the twenty-first century. The history panel was led down the same path of overspecification that brought the arts panel to grief. However, I don't believe that most Americans really wish to have their children read and understand (to mention just a few of Gagnon's examples) "Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, Burke, Paine, the Federalists and the anti-Federalists" as background for the study of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I think Debra Wadsworth, in the recent Public Agenda Foundation report, is on the mark when she says that Public Agenda found "a surprising degree of disdain toward highly educated people and some sense of antagonism toward an educational cultural elite." Until public attitudes toward learning change, Wadsworth, Gagnon, and those who write letters to Theare merely talking to ourselves.

Bruce M. Smith

Gerald Bracey disputes my 25 percent dropout rate, but the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 73.4 percent of the appropriate age group earned high school diplomas in 1994-1995, much like the 73.2 percent of 1990-1991, the year my article cites. The NCES "dropout" rate of only 10.5 percent for 1994-1995 ignores the "institutionalized," those not in households, and those who never start high school at all. The Committee of Ten sought equal and democratic schooling precisely because its members expected a rapid rise in numbers of high school students, well beyond the 1894 percentages. Bob Whetstone says I assign school reform to the local level, but I suggest something very different: local implementation of statewide standards.

Sadly, these letters either excuse unequal schools or seem resigned to them because obstacles to change are too much for us. We are to think that Americans, unique in the world, are so beset by awful forces (apathy, taxes, conspiracies, unreformable communities) that we cannot do for our children what others do for theirs. American exceptionalism--once too prideful--is turned on its head, now to be abject. Happily, most letters from parents and teachers see things differently and say we can do better.

Lead Poisoning

Ellen Ruppel Shell's insinuation that the hazards of lead poisoning have been exaggerated to manipulate public policy to extremist ends is unfounded ("An Element of Doubt," December Atlantic).

First, the evidence is solid that lead poisoning is a serious public-health problem. Thousands of laboratory, clinical, and population-based studies conclusively document lead's adverse effects. The Bush Administration's decision to reduce the threshold for lead in blood was justified (indeed, necessitated) by the cumulative weight of evidence, including more than a dozen epidemiological studies in the United States and abroad demonstrating that low-level lead poisoning has a debilitating effect on children's intelligence, hearing, attention span, learning, and behavior.

Over the past two decades lead levels have decreased dramatically in the United States, owing to the ban on lead in gasoline. But this impressive public-health achievement is no reason to abandon efforts to protect those children still at risk.

With the active support of public-health advocates, the goal of national policy has been redirected to lead-safe (rather than lead-free) housing. Shell's reading of the 1992 federal law is backwards: rather than promoting "the widespread removal of lead paint," it sanctioned strategies to manage existing lead paint and narrowed the focus to exposure hazards--primarily deteriorating paint and dust. The irony Shell tries to find in my family's living in a home with lead paint demonstrates her ignorance of national consensus recommendations for lead-safe housing.

What Should Children Learn?

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