School Reform and Ethics

A lot of attention is being paid lately to the academic failings of the US school system. President Bush, seeking to redress the situation, says he wants to be known as the ``education president.''

Educators, and state and federal officials, are particularly worried about the United States lagging behind in science and mathematics - the technical skills most needed to compete with Japan, South Korea, and West Germany, among others.

Time magazine recently cited an Educational Testing Service study of five countries and a number of Canadian provinces. The study found that American 13-year-olds ranked last in mathematics and nearly last in science.

In a survey of 17 countries by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, American ninth-graders were down with students from Singapore and Thailand in 14th place in science.

John Silber, the controversial president of Boston University, writes in a new book that ``standards today are derisory by standards that were operative in ordinary little country schools a hundred years ago.''

Some say that as a result of these deficiencies among our young, the economy and even national security is at risk.

Last month, President Bush held an education summit with governors to deal with the crisis. Proposals included giving parents the freedom to choose which schools their children will attend, encouraging businesses and schools to come up with new training programs, attracting more teaching talent by making it easier for career-switchers to become teachers, and by requiring competency tests for students and teachers.

Many of these steps are worthwhile. It is good that there is high-level focus on these educational shortcomings. But while we try to teach our children to be better mathematicians, there is another essential missing in the overall educational equation. It is emphasis not on the nuts and bolts of schooling, but on ethics.

Everyone seems to agree that students need better training in the three R's, but they have been short-changed in lessons on how to make moral choices.

When my daughter was admitted to a well-known college some years ago, and I attended a briefing session for parents, I was startled at the confident manner in which the college president disclaimed all responsibility on the part of his staff for moral counseling. The college's position was that in the overnight transition from high school to college, students had become adults and were responsible for themselves.

Ethical studies were best left to parents and the churches.

That has changed somewhat, given some recent much-publicized instances of stockbrokers, politicians, and evangelists who have gone wrong. Some universities and business schools have reinstituted courses for the study of ethics.

But there is still a vast wasteland of disinterest in ethics.

There should not be, for there is clearly a need for earlier ethical head-clearing. A recent survey of American high school seniors by the international Pinnacle Group public relations company came up with these disturbing findings:

59 percent said they would face six months' probation on an illegal deal to make $10 million.

36 percent would plagiarize to pass a test.

67 percent would inflate expense accounts.

50 percent would pad an insurance claim.

66 percent would lie to achieve a business objective.

This is a sorry state of affairs. We should not be apologetic for instructing our children that financial success is without point unless accompanied by integrity, honesty, and a deepening sense of non-material values.

The relegation of ethical studies may be just as major a crisis as our backwardness in mathematics and science. Why should ethics not be stressed as vigorously in school as it should be in the home?

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