Classroom

Classroom Credit: Newsday/Jim Peppler

Some new data on student achievement demonstrate once again how far we are from having schools that prepare the great majority of our children to be informed, productive 21st-century citizens.

First, a nationwide testing system -- the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- found that most American students know little of their own nation's history. An astonishing 88 percent of high school seniors failed to show "proficiency" on the history exam, and 55 percent failed to meet even the more lenient "basic" standard, which is defined as mere "partial mastery."

As if that weren't sufficiently disturbing, new state data revealed that while 88 percent of Long Island high schoolers graduate on time, only 52 percent are graduating college-ready as indicated by their performance on math and English Regents exams. The socioeconomic disparities were predictably glaring. In affluent, mostly white Jericho, 87 percent met the state standard for college-ready. In poor, mostly black Wyandanch, the proportion was just 5 percent.

These sobering results should give all of us pause, because they reflect underlying trends with dire social, economic and political implications. The best guarantor of a healthy democracy is a well-informed citizenry, one that has context for the news of the day from knowledge of what's come before. So history matters. In the modern world, moreover, a healthy economy depends on a well-educated, highly skilled workforce. Failing to properly educate our young -- and they fare poorly on international comparisons -- threatens our collective future by imperiling economic growth, perpetuating inequality and fraying the social fabric. It's a terribly effective recipe for national decline.

How did we get here? The culprits are many. America has a shorter school year than most comparable countries. Our schools often fail to hold students to high standards, instead promoting them even if they haven't learned. And while most teachers are able and dedicated, bad ones are too hard to fire.

Then there is family life. "Tiger mothers" and stressed-out kids may make headlines, but in fact too many parents don't put enough emphasis on learning, and most kids today live in homes where TVs and gaming systems compete all too effectively with study.

Americans are also victims of our own democratic ideals. We want everyone to finish high school and go on to college, yet find that too many need remedial help when they get there. Maybe it would be wiser to lay aside the idealistic notion that every kid will benefit from higher education and instead teach more practical skills in high school.

One thing that doesn't seem to be the problem, on Long Island at least, is money. In 2008 (the latest year a figure was available), public school spending per pupil here averaged $25,029, which is a lot by national standards. And there was precious little spending difference between rich and poor districts, despite their disparate results. Jericho, for example, spent $29,724. Wyandanch spent $26,016.

Our school problems aren't new, but the world has changed in ways that make them more urgent. There's simply no more time to waste.