By Walter Brasch
The signing season has begun.
Look through your local newspaper for the next few weeks, and you’ll see a lot of posed pictures of high school athletes.
Everyone will be at a desk or table.
Around each one will be their parents and their coach. In some cases, add in an athletic director, a principal, and someone representing a college the young athlete is planning to attend.
It makes no difference if it’s a Division I or Division II school; sometimes it’s even a Division III school. Star athletes at the end of their high school careers get photos and applause. They can even get special financial aid and scholarships just for being able to play a sport well. At Division I universities, they also receive special academic tutoring to make sure they stay eligible.
Star on an athletic field, and the local media will take your picture and write stories about you. If you’re good enough, the sportswriters might name you "Athlete of the Week" and present you with a certificate or small plaque.
At the end of the season—it makes little difference what season or what sport—you might be named to an all-district or all-regional or all-state team. You might even be voted by the sports writers in your area "Player of the Year" for your sport.
If you do extremely well in college sports, at the age of 22 you might be able to command a six- or seven-figure salary in a professional sport. Become a coach of a major sport at a Division I school, and even if your team is only mildly successful you’ll earn several times what professors earn.
Now, let’s pretend you’re a scholar. Even in the world of rampant grade inflation, you’re running an "A" average and are in the top 5 percent of your class. You just aced the SATs and are heading to a Division I university.
You probably won’t get your picture in the paper, surrounded by parents, counselor, mentor, or anyone from that Division I university. It just isn’t done. Newspapers have Sports sections, sometimes 8–12 pages; they don’t have Education sections.
Although some editors may claim that "education" is spread throughout the newspaper, the reality is that column inches devoted to sports coverage is significantly greater than column inches devoted to education news.
The American educational system rated just 17th among 50 industrialized countries, according to an analysis published in November by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The countries with the leading educational systems, according to the EIU, were Scandinavian and Asian. The EIU analysis looked at both quantitative data (including class size, facilities, and government spending per pupil) and qualitative data (including development of cognitive skills.)
In another major study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that U.S. students were average in reading and science skills, and below average in math skills. Fifteen-year-old students, according to the report, ranked 14th of 34 countries in reading abilities, 17th in science, and 25th in math. As for writing and cognitive skills abilities—just look at any letter to the editor to find out how well students command those subjects. The PISA testing requires students to take knowledge of a subject and apply it to solving real-world problems.
"This is an absolute wake-up call for America," Dr. Anne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, told the AP. She said the study was "extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth [and] get much more serious about investing in education."
There are innumerable problems in America’s educational systems. One is that the gap between the higher performing students and the lower performing students in all areas (including humanities, arts, and sciences) is increasing. Another is that educational systems, spurred by taxpayers who don’t want higher taxes, have learned not how to effectively cut expenses but have sacrificed education by packing more students into a classroom; almost every study (including the PISA testing) shows a link between class size and educational achievement.
Another link is the workload of the average teacher. Many taxpayers and some in the media believe teachers are overpaid and work "only" six or seven hours a day for only 180 days a year. However, the evidence doesn’t support the public perception. Teacher pay averages about 12 percent less than for professionals in comparable jobs, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute; in some states, the pay is 25 percent less than for comparable jobs. The average teacher workload is significantly greater than the number of hours in the classroom. According to a recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, teachers average about 53 hours a week, including time spent on class preparation, student evaluation, and discussions with students and their parents. Even during breaks, teachers are usually developing classroom materials or attending conferences and in-service training. The PISA report links general public respect for teachers with greater educational success.
And, yes, in the educational system are weak and ineffective teachers, school administrators, and school board members who are part of a system that may have become more lethargic than revolutionary.
But, a look at American society, as seen in the pages of the local newspaper, is a reflection of what Americans think is important. When you’re looking at a four-column picture of a smiling athlete at a signing ceremony, ask yourself why do we wring our hands, furrow our brows, and complain about low educational scores.
The answer might be that while athletes are photographed signing on the dotted line, highly-talented student musicians, artists, writers, and future scientists, among several hundred thousand others, are also signing on dotted lines—but, these are dotted lines on financial loan statements.
[Assisting on this column was Rosemary R. Brasch. Dr. Brasch, who has mixed teaching and journalism for more than three decades, is an award-winning journalist and the author of 17 books. His latest is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the effects of fracking upon public health, safety, and the environment. The book is available from amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com.]