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What Florida's best governor would think of education

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- There was panic in the land as the National Education Association prepared for its 1958 convention. The Soviet Union had beaten America into space with the successful Sputnik launch eight months before. As usual, teachers were getting a heaping share of the blame. Congress was about to pass the National Defense Education Act, targeting big money to science, mathematics and foreign language education. In that climate, the NEA heard a guest speaker with a surprisingly contrary -- and upbeat -- view.

As his own state's school people could tell them, he said, "I do not think you could include me among those who blindly admire our educational system as it is . . .

"But I do think it is time for those who should know to say to the people of America that American education is basically sound. . . ."

What worried him more than the Russians was that the humanities would be sacrificed to the space race.

". . . I think we should get rid of the notion that our salvation will be certain through the development of science," he said. "In reality what we should be most concerned about is a way out of this race toward world suicide, not a faster way of getting there.

"Also, we should get it out of our system that science education is all of education. Science gives us tools. They are, indeed, important; but it is the rest of education which teaches us how to use these tools . . .

"These are also days when the hue and cry is for "less frills and more skills' in education. What do they really condemn as frills? Surely not the great books, the enrichment studies, the clear evaluation of life, its meaning and history . . ."

The speaker was LeRoy Collins, who is generally acknowledged to have been the best governor Florida has ever had.

To contemplate his speech to the NEA is to wonder what Collins, who died in 1991, would make of what's going on about education in his beloved state today. I suspect he would not like much of it.

For one thing, he almost surely would have vetoed tax credits for private schools. As governor, he spoke strongly against vouchers when they were proposed to foil desegregation. He said that a "uniform system of public free schools," as required by the Constitution, ". . . is the bedrock upon which our future progress in Florida will be built, just as it has been the base for our building in the past."

For another, I think he would be appalled at how standardized testing is being misapplied to the public schools. He would see it as he saw the science panic of 1958 -- in terms of the unintended but inevitable consequences to what's not being tested, and because it is not tested, is sure to be neglected. Now, as then, that would be "the great books, the enrichment studies, the clear evaluation of life, its meaning and history."

The FCAT test measures only reading and math skills. After this year, it will also assess science; Tallahassee finally caught on how that vital subject was being pushed aside in the school's frenzy to not be rated "F" or "D" in reading and math. So now science will be stressed as well. But even those who make policy in Tallahassee should be able to understand where that will lead: to even less attention for history, music, art, foreign languages, literature and everything else that is necessary to grow whole citizens.

To be sure, the ability to read and to comprehend is the prerequisite to everything else, and to that end the FCAT could be constructive if it were limited, as it should be, to assessing each student's individual progress in reading and math. The results, however, should be available early in the school year, rather than only at the end or after, so that teachers might know which of their students need help and where.

The misuse of the FCAT is to grade schools in a way that makes the consequences of the test more important than anything else that teachers, principals and parents should be thinking about. To deny that's happening is to pretend there's no such thing as behavior modification.

Every legislator knows, though few dare say, why we're doing this. First, it costs less -- much less -- than the real investments we should be making. Secondly, it's the camel's nose for the statewide voucher system that Jeb Bush once said he wanted and the House leadership still does. What the two motives have in common is Florida's unfathomable cheapness -- a miserliness of spirit as well as money. Public education is simply not worth what it should be.

"Some say we cannot afford to spend more on education . . .," Collins told the NEA. "When I grumble about high living costs around my house, my wife frequently says, "Well, I notice you usually get what you want.' The same goes for education. Our wants usually control what we actually get. If we want something bad enough we can usually find ways to get it."

History records that the United States won the space race he was concerned about. We also won the Cold War of which it was a part. But despite the 1958 law, foreign languages have never mattered a fraction as much as science or math. What has that cost us?

Ask the FBI. Ask the CIA. They know only too well.

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