By Fr. George Welzbacher
October 9, 2011
First some good news. Then the bad. In each instance the focus is on America's public schools. The good news is proof from right here in the Metro that the right kind of school can counteract the negative effects of widespread poverty and shattered family life in the Black community. The bad news concerns the alarming loss of awareness among far too many of our young Americans that there is an objective right and wrong.
The bearer of the good news is Katherine Kersten, columnist for The Star Tribune, whose perceptive comments on social issues will hold their own, and then some, with the views expressed by featured columnists in any of the major papers of this country. Here is what she has to say.
* * * * *At This School, Usual Excuses Don't Apply
Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 24, 2011
A North Minneapolis school at Olson Memorial Highway and Humboldt Avenue has demographics that seem a sure predictor of our state's most intractable education problem. The student population there is 99 percent black and 91 percent poor, and about 70 percent of the children come from single-parent families.
Such "racial isolation" is widely considered a formula for defeat -- a hallmark of the cavernous "achievement gap" that separates poor, minority students from their more affluent white peers. In recent decades, Minnesota has spent billions of dollars attempting to narrow the gap but has little to show for it.
That's why the ACHIEVEMENTS of the school I just described should be SHOUTED from the rooftops. In this year's state math tests in grades three through eight, this school OUTPERFORMED every Metro-area school district, including Edina and Wayzata. Its students outperformed all state students in reading proficiency (77 percent to 75 percent), and state white students in math proficiency (82 percent to 65 percent).
This extraordinary school is Harvest Preparatory School, a K-6 charter with five programs, including Best Academy, a K-8 boys program.
Black males are among our state's lowest-performing groups of students, but at Best Academy, 100 percent of eighth-grade boys scored proficient in reading. "Best Academy has the highest proportion of African-American boys of any institution in Minnesota," says founder and director Eric Mahmoud. "The only institution that competes with us is the prison system."
How have Mahmoud and his team worked this magic? Mahmoud is an electrical engineer by training. "At the factory I used to run, if we had a failure rate of 0.5 percent, we'd shut down the line until we figured out the problem," he says. "In our education system, we're failing with 40, 50, 60 percent of our African-American children, but we keep the system that turns out the SAME product, year after year."
Mahmoud's NEW educational system includes the following components:
• Top-notch instruction: Every day, Harvest devotes 100-minute time blocks to reading and math. In early grades, the school teaches phonics and math facts using "drill and kill" methods that would drive most education professors shrieking from the room. But the "automaticity" that results liberates students for the challenges that await them -- from deciphering Emily Dickinson poems in fifth grade to mastering algebra in eighth grade.
• A laser-like focus on data: Harvest continually assesses students on a host of measures so it can implement targeted interventions BEFORE kids fail. Teachers are evaluated based on their students' learning gains.
• A calendar that gives students THE TIME THEY NEED TO MASTER what they need to know: Harvest is in session 200 days a year, from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. The key to academic success, says Mahmoud, is "great teaching, and more of it."
But Harvest Prep doesn't stop with academic excellence. At its heart is a school culture that instills MORAL character.
The process begins with what Mahmoud calls "the power of the uniform" -- no saggy pants or short skirts here. Middle-school boys, for example, wear red ties, khaki slacks and blazers. A culture of manners and civility permeates the building. Students are addressed as "scholars," say "please" and "thank you," and greet visitors politely. Weekly ceremonies recognize children who achieve academic success through hard work, who sacrifice to help struggling classmates, or who demonstrate moral courage and truthfulness.
The obligation to "give back" is constantly discussed. "We don't just want great test-takers and smart children -- we want children who do good things," says Mahmoud. He cites Mary McLeod Bethune, a 19th-century black education reformer. A sign above the door of a school she founded read, "Enter to learn; go forth to serve."
Today, lots of folks - including school board members, superintendents and state officials -- insist we can't narrow the achievement gap without boatloads of new money. Some say that if poor, minority children are to learn, they must be bussed far from home to sit next to kids whose skin color or income bracket is different. Few talk much about teaching kids the vital importance of hard work, self-discipline, rejecting victimhood and taking responsibility for their own success.
At Harvest Prep, students know better. Every morning, as the Best Academy boys shout their creed together, they say these words:
"We are boys striving to become great men. We are the best, because we work hard at it; we make no excuses; we ensure that we are always prepared; we will uplift each other; we are our brother's keeper.
"We will be honest in our words and honorable in our actions. ... We will respect our parents and honor our elders....
"We are the best, NOT because we SAY it -- but because the best is what we DO!"
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Ms. Kersten's essay offers a welcome antidote to the despair that prevails among too many of those who are properly alarmed by the abysmal levels of achievement to which America's public schools have fallen in the critical areas of reading, writing, science, and math, not to mention (for its civic importance) history. The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a report on the AVERAGE level of achievement shown in those disciplines by last year's public high school graduates: it was the LOWEST EVER RECORDED IN THE U.S.A. Given the importance in today's economy of skill in those precise areas, this bodes ill for America's competitiveness on the global scene. But more worrisome still is the erosion of consensus on moral issues among so many of our young Americans; to a significant degree this is the fruit of the cult of "multicultural diversity" that for quite some time has been the new gospel move or less officially held up for veneration in our public schools (and in many a private school as well).
Dennis Prager, a respected political analyst, speaks his mind on what is an increasingly apparent and deeply disturbing generational divide.* * * * *
Why Young Americans Can't Think Morally
Moral standards have been replaced by feelings.
The Washington Times, National Edition, September 26
Two weeks ago, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column on an academic study concerning the nearly complete lack of a moral vocabulary among most American young people.
Below are excerpts from Brooks's summary of the study of Americans aged 18 to 23. (The study was led by "the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith")
"Smith and company asked about the young people's moral lives, and the results are depressing....
"When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn't answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all....
"Moral thinking didn't enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner....
"The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste....
"As one put it, 'I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn't speak on behalf of anyone else as to what's right and wrong....
"Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it's thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart."
Ever since I attended college, I have been convinced that "studies" either confirm what common sense suggests or they are mistaken.
I realized this when I was presented study after study "showing" that boys and girls were not inherently different from one another, and they acted differently only because of sexist upbringings.
This latest study cited by David Brooks confirms what conservatives have known for a generation:
Moral standards have been replaced by FEELINGS.
Of course, those on the left only believe this when a writer at a major liberal newspaper cites an "eminent sociologist."
What is disconcerting about Brooks' piece is that nowhere in what is an important column does he mention the REASON for this disturbing trend: namely - SECULARISM.
The intellectual class and the left still believe that secularism is an unalloyed blessing. They are wrong.
Secularism is good for government.
But it is terrible for society (though still preferable to bad religion) and for the individual.
One key reason is what secularism does to moral standards. If moral standards are not rooted in God, they do not objectively exist.
Good and evil become no more real than "yummy" and "yucky." They are simply a matter of personal preference. One of the foremost liberal philosophers, Richard Rorty, an atheist, acknowledged that, for the secular liberal, "There is no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?'"
With- the death of Judeo-Christian God-based standards, people have simply substituted feelings for those standards. Millions of American young people have been raised by parents and schools with "How do you feel about it?" as the only guide to what they ought to do. The heart has replaced God and the Bible as a moral guide.
And now, as Brooks points out, we see the results.
A vast number of American young people do not even ask whether an action is right or wrong.
The question would strike them as foreign.
Because the question suggests that there is a right and wrong outside of themselves. And just as for them there is no God higher than themselves, there is no morality higher than themselves, either.
Forty years ago, I began writing and lecturing about this problem.
It was then that I began asking students if they would save their dog or a stranger FIRST if BOTH were drowning.
The majority always voted against the stranger - because, they explained, they loved their dog and they didn't love the stranger.
They followed their feelings.
Without God and Judeo-Christian religions, what else is there?
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. He may be contacted through his website, http://www.dennisprager.com.
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