Mazzuca: ‘F’ Words |

Mazzuca: ‘F’ Words

Soon our kids will be back in school. Parents will busy themselves buying school supplies while gasping at how much it will cost their kids to participate in various activities. But are we missing the larger picture regarding our kids’ education?

A few days ago I stopped in a local shop to buy a couple of sundry items. The total came to $3.37 and I handed the young woman behind the counter a $5 bill and two pennies on the assumption she would return a one-dollar bill and 65 cents in silver.

However, she appeared somewhat confused when she looked at the two pennies. She then reached into the cash drawer, pulled out a dollar bill, two quarters, a dime and three pennies and slid them all back to me along with the original two pennies I had given her.

I then asked if she would give me a nickel instead of five pennies; she responded, “But you have the correct change, it says so right here on the register.”

I won’t belabor the point, but I think you can see where I’m going. This was a young woman who I guessed to be about 17 years old (she was wearing a high-school class ring) and who not only was unable to complete a very basic mathematical calculation, but didn’t grasp the concept either.

How many times have we been told that the average American high school graduate cannot complete simple mathematical computations without a calculator or describe the difference between a profit and a profit margin? And how many studies do we have to read to know that our kids don’t fare well in comparative testing versus their European and Asian counterparts? But more importantly, why is this so in a country that spends more per capita on education than any other nation in the world?

In the book, “A Nation at Risk,” the members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education argued that much of America’s decline in academic achievement is traceable to the “cafeteria-style curriculum” that high school administrators have designed for our students.

We know that academics should be the core mission of our schools, but instead our school systems, especially our high schools, seem to be turning into multi-service agencies. In the ABC Television special “Stupid in America” it was pointed out that when tested at age 10, American students score well above the international average for 10-year-olds; but by age 15, these same American students placed 25th out of 40.

According to National Commission on Excellence in Education, there are too many school administrators who feel that the high school curriculum should be substantially, perhaps even predominantly, nonacademic. That it should focus on personal and development courses, which is code for watered-down academics and a significant number of non-academic courses.

Academic researchers Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton compared a 1973 algebra textbook to a 1998 “Contemporary Mathematics” textbook that’s commonly used in our schools today.

In the 1973 book, the index entries under the letter “F” included, factors, factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions, and functions. By contrast, the 1998 book included words such as, families, fast-food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding tours, Ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds, food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises and fundraising carnival.

No one expects 21st century schools to go back to teaching the “Three Rs,” in a one-room school house, but the lack of focus on the basics is manifesting itself in other ways that are troubling. Eric Effron in The Week magazine editorialized about how a growing number of school districts from Toledo to Palm Beach to Burlington, Vt. are joining the movement to do away with high school valedictorians.

Concerned that the valedictorian tradition breeds unhealthy competition, many schools are either forgoing the name of a valediction altogether or giving the title to everyone who achieves a certain grade point average. Last year a Fairfax, Va. high school graduated 41 valedictorians while a high school in Fresno, Calif. graduated 58 of them.

It appears that many of our public schools are focusing on non-academic matters and on building a student’s self-esteem rather than educating. Perhaps it’s OK to give every first-grader a ribbon for simply participating in class, but aren’t we doing our kids a great disservice by rewarding mediocrity while at the same time inflating their sense of self?

As a result, our kids aren’t prepared to meet many of the challenges they will face shortly after graduation from high school. Sooner or later life is going to compel them to read and understand an apartment lease, grasp the concept of compound interest and balance a checkbook.

But the really sad truth can be found in a recent Gallup Poll that concluded, “More than thre- quarters of American parents were satisfied with the quality of the education their child was receiving in their public school.”

To quote John Stossel from the aforementioned ABC TV special, “These parents just don’t know any better.” And therein lays the real indictment.

Quote of the day: “The size of our troubles generally depends on whether they are coming or going.”

Butch Mazzuca is a business consultant and writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at

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