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In his Inaugural Address in 1965, Lyndon Johnson, coming off one of the great landslides, spread out the plans for his Great Society. It was the heyday of liberalism, and those were days of hope. After civil rights, education topped the agenda.

On April 11, at the grammar school he attended, LBJ signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the first federal education law in U.S. history, focused on disadvantaged children.

And after 40 years and trillions of tax dollars plunged into public education at all levels, how stands public education?

Well, it depends. Sam Dillon reports in Sunday’s New York Times:

After Tennessee tested its eighth-grade students in math this year, state officials at a jubilant news conference called the results “a cause for celebration.” Eighty-seven percent of students performed at or above the proficiency level.

Mississippi’s fourth-graders did even better at math, with 89 percent performing at or above proficiency levels. Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Alaska reported equally exhilarating results.

Fly in the ointment: These were the results of tests designed by state officials. On the national test mandated by No Child Left Behind, only 22 percent of Tennessee’s eighth-graders passed, and only 18 percent of fourth-graders in Mississippi could do fourth-grade arithmetic. By national standards, four of every five kids in the Tennessee and Mississippi public schools are failing.

Inescapable conclusion: State officials are dumbing-down tests so even the slowest kids can pass, to keep the federal dollars flowing in and federal sanctions from being imposed.

Put crudely, state officials are colluding in a fraud to deceive parents, kids and themselves about the progress, or lack of it, being made by the public schools. They are like baseball officials who, unhappy with the paltry production of home runs, lower the mound, narrow the strike zone, create a new rabbit ball, bring in the left- and right-field fences and look the other way at steroid use – then celebrate all the great hitters who beat Babe Ruth’s record.

In four states – Missouri, Wyoming, Maine and South Carolina – state test scores closely tracked federal scores. In South Carolina, which sets world-class standards, 30 percent of the kids passed the feds’ eighth-grade math test, but only 23 percent passed the state test. Apparently, educators in South Carolina don’t believe in lying to themselves.

The ultimate test is how American kids stack up in a world where leadership in math and science eventually translates into military power and global dominance. In all recent world tests where they have competed, the Chinese on the mainland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Korea come in at or near the top, as Americans bring up the rear. We may lie to ourselves about how well we are doing, but the world will one day find us out.

The lying has been going on a long time now. Between the mid-1960s and mid-1990s, Americans wrung their hands at falling SAT scores of high-school seniors in math and English. Some educators wailed that the tests were cruel, unfair and culturally biased. So, testing criteria were made less rigorous and altered to make comparisons with earlier years more difficult. Now, the SAT scores are no longer cause for concern.

“Humankind cannot stand too much reality,” said T.S. Eliot. The reality is that a vast acreage of U.S. public education is a wasteland.

“Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” said George Bush pungently in Florence, S.C., in the 2000 election. As we now know – and, in truth, have known for decades – American children are not learning as once they did. And the ethnic gaps in achievement that existed 40 years ago persist up to today. Nothing has changed.

Why? Classrooms are far smaller. Teacher salaries are far higher. School budgets are far larger. Where it cost $250 a year to educate a child in Washington, D.C., in 1950, which probably translates into $2,500 today, the per-capita cost of educating kids in Washington schools is over $10,000. While that is among the highest in the nation, Washington test scores remain among the lowest. We have Head Start and school lunches, and every demand the reformers have made has been met. The I.Q. tests have been thrown out, and the track system abolished.

Explanations for the failure are many. The collapse of the family. Kids coming to school unmotivated and unprepared. Disruptions in the classroom. Violence and drugs in the schoolyard. The lure of television, videogames and the street pulling kids away from desks, where generations spent hours doing homework. But are these the explanation, or excuses? Does it make any difference?

At the turn of the millennium, pundits were saying that not only had the 20th century been “the American Century,” the 21st would be, as well. Brits were probably saying the same thing back in 1900.

Great, indeed, is our capacity for self-deception.

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