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Southern California Voices / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY

Today's Agenda

September 13, 1993

Critical thinking, logic, analysis, mastering mathematical concepts, being able to evaluate facts--all components of a good education and, critics say, a major failing of American public schools.

Our public schools are not teaching students to think independently, they say. And a federal study released last week says that nearly half of American adults have only the barest of language and math skills.

Maya Swamy, however, a parent whose children attend Los Angeles public schools, says in Community Essay that her kids are getting a lot better education than she did in the highly touted European and Asian school systems.

"I might have known more facts at corresponding ages than American children do and yet I would rather have the education that they have. If they don't know the fact, they know where to find it when they need it--and that is a greater strength," she says.

Someone who knows a great deal about education, particularly here in California, agrees--to a point. Allan Odden, co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education Finance Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and formerly of USC, says:

"Some schools in America, California and Los Angeles teach thinking and problem-solving. They pose problems and engage students in the process of constructing new knowledge. The fact that some schools--even in poor neighborhoods--take this approach and do it successfully provides a basis for hope.

"But," he continues, "these schools are not the norm. Most schools in the United States, California and Los Angeles emphasize basic skills, give kids work sheets, and emphasize facts and recall, which Maya Swamy claimed was characteristic of schools in other countries, too.

"Yet, very few American schools begin to develop algebraic and geometric concepts in elementary schools, or engage children in a variety of writing tasks, or take an inquiry approach to history."

We shouldn't just copy another country's approach to schooling, because none is perfect, Odden says.

"Students from other countries achieve higher than our students on nearly all international tests of student achievement. What we need to ensure is that the few schools to which Maya Swamy refers become the norm in this country rather than just isolated examples of excellence," he says.


Our state's school library system has been called the nation's "worst of the worst" by the American Library Assn. California doesn't require schools to have libraries, and for years they have been among the first targets of school district spending cuts. There is some hope, though. A bill sent to Gov. Pete Wilson for his signature earlier this month would give $10,000 state grants to public schools that do not have libraries and $5,000 grants to those with poorly equipped facilities.

In today's Making a Difference, we look at Temecula, a city that's proving its commitment to schools and libraries despite today's economic climate.

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