Monday, September 25, 2006

EDITORIALS>>A poverty of the mind

Here is a statistic that both encourages and depresses us: The parents of about 10 percent of seventh and eighth grade students in Arkansas sign waivers every year so that their children will not be required to take the core curriculum for secondary school.

We were surprised that the percentage was so low; we were disappointed that it was not zero.

The core curriculum, which the state Education Department calls the Smart Core, requires students to take four standard courses in both English and mathematics and three units each of science and social studies. You would guess that taking a fairly rigorous curriculum would cause students to score better on the standardized tests that now measure success in everything educational and that it would improve their chances of going to college and of having success there. We now know that it does all those things. There is evidence, too, that those who do not go to college at all or do not graduate still benefit socially and economically from having taken the courses that prepare one for college.

But the parents of one of every 10 children either do not have confidence that their youngster can do that level of work or else they simply do not want them to take the harder courses because they think college and the knowledge itself that comes from formal education beyond the basics are superfluous in the real world into which their kids will matriculate. More than almost any state in the union, Arkansas has always suffered from a poverty of the mind — a notion that education is really not all that important — and the Education Department statistic suggests that we have not altogether shed that attitude yet.

When the Arkansas legislature actually mandated the core curriculum, it was a signal that we had got beyond that attitude.
The legislature is a pretty good reflection of the public. But lawmakers inserted an opt-out provision in the act. Youngsters would not be subjected to the core curriculum and could pile up “career” or homemaking courses instead if their parents signed a waiver.

Ken James, the director of the department, thinks the legislature should now revisit that issue. Gov. Huckabee, whose conversion to progressive school doctrine has been one of the most important developments of the decade, seems to agree. He said this week that it was “immoral” — strong word! — to assign lower expectations to some students owing to where they live, their race or their parents’ money. He should have added “or the low expectations of their parents.”

Huckabee leaves office in January and cannot influence that change. Often there has been a chasm between Huckabee’s policy pronouncements and his actions, but not in education, lately. As with the consolidation of small, underperforming schools, he has been bold, and we think he would be here, too. What would Mike Beebe or Asa Hutchinson do?

The legislature should repeal the weak-curriculum option or else modify it to permit children to opt out in only extreme cases. Unlike controlling the nation’s borders, here is an issue that actually involves something that falls within the purview of the governor’s power.