Education

While people are justifiably praising President Obama for his string of victories during the lame-duck session of Congress, there were several items left undone by his administration during its first two years that sorely need addressing during the remainder of his first term. Chief among this is improving the state of public education in this country.

It has been widely reported that test scores of U.S. students in reading, math and science lag badly behind many other industrial nations. We used to be No. 1 — now we are often not even in the top 10. In fact, according to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 15-year-old U.S. students ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math among 34 countries.

When these scores were released in December, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The Associated Press, “This is an absolute wake-up call for America. The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

Two events this fall dramatically underscored this reality for me — the documentary movie “Waiting for Superman” and the 125th anniversary of my public high school in Fort Worth, Texas.

My wife and I saw “Waiting for Superman” in a D.C. theater. She is a retired elementary school principal and I am a longtime supporter of public education. The movie made me angry. My overwhelming reaction to it was simple — why are we failing so many kids who want and need a good public education? It’s terrible for them personally and for our country because a well-educated workforce is essential to our country being competitive economically with the rest of the world. The Obama administration — while well-meaning — has just scratched the surface in addressing this problem.

My high school (R.L. Paschal, which started off as Central High School) celebrated its 125th anniversary in November of 2010. It has always been a respected public school and retains that reputation to this day, even while some others have fallen by the wayside.

The history of my school makes me both proud and somewhat sad. I grew up at a time when virtually everyone, except the wealthy and privileged, went to public schools. That was the 1950s. Now, many of the best and brightest of our youngsters shun public education and attend private schools. And many of those who remain in the public system receive a sub-par education.

Let me take a moment to review some of the very successful people who attended my high school. I know there are other schools around the country that can make similar claims, but it gives you an idea of how good a public high school can be. Here’s a partial list of Paschal alums who have achieved in the arts, politics, entertainment and athletics:

Ben Hogan (ranked by Golf Digest as the fourth greatest professional golfer in history), Ginger Rogers (Fred Astaire’s dancing partner in the movies), Alan Bean (fourth U.S. astronaut to land on the moon), Dan Jenkins (nationally known author of sports fiction including Semi-Tough and Dead Solid Perfect), “T-Bone” Burnett (musician who has won five Grammies and an Academy Award), Frank Ryan (quarterback for the Cleveland Browns when they won the 1964 NFL Championship), Price Daniel (governor of Texas and U.S. senator from Texas) and Sherwin Goldman (for many years president of the American Ballet Theater in New York).

There are no PISA scores available school by school; however, Paschal students performed well on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests administered by the state of Texas during 2010. A total of 93 percent of Paschal students passed the reading test, 79 percent passed the math exam and 81 percent passed the science exam. Paschal today is two-thirds black and Hispanic and one-third white.

President Obama has made great strides in a number of very important areas. But unless his administration really does something about the state of public education in our country, it will not be viewed by history as one of the best. Estimates are that 90 percent of the children in our country still attend public schools. We cannot long remain a great country if we fail them miserably.