08/13/2013 01:58 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

The Failure to Educate

News Item: New, more rigorous, thought-provoking, testing of school children has produced disastrous results in New York City. Among students grades three through eight, 26 percent passed a proficiency test for English, 30 percent passed in math.

Aside from the results themselves, what is most distressing is that the United States has been preoccupied with the decline in its education standards and performance for well over a half century (remember the Sputnik debate?). This concern has led to any number of innovations and programs -- most recently focusing on charter schools and tougher school standards -- producing a steady drumbeat of claims that we have turned the corner finally.

And New York City has been a center for such claims, boasts, and self-satisfaction. The highly-lauded film, "Waiting for Superman," focused on Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic director of the Harlem Children's Zone, which runs two inner-city charter schools. "Superman" presented the Harlem program as an unqualified success. But the new testing had already, by 2010, shot holes in this success, even as the Zone spends far more money per student than standard schools in New York. According to the Times, "Mr. Canada and his charter schools have struggled with the same difficulties faced by other urban schools, even as they outspend them."

At the city-wide level, former Schools Superintendent Joel Klein has been the beneficiary of the glow of an expansive charter schools effort, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But the failure of New York students to meet the higher standards was well-known by 2010, as Klein left his post, when the number of students required to repeat a grade exploded (it quintupled).

Klein thus got out of town before the sheriff arrived, although it was clear that the city hasn't been able to deal with (no city has) the difference in educational performances in different communities, and that all claims to the contrary have been eyewash. In the recent testing in New York, in math, 61 percent of Asians passed the exam, 50 percent of whites, 19 percent of Latinos, and 15 percent of African-Americans. As one more vaunted charter school director lamented:

Chrystina Russell, principal of Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem, said she did not know what she would tell parents, who will receive scores for their children in late August. At her middle school, which serves a large population of students from poor families, 7 percent of students were rated proficient in English, and 10 percent in math. Last year, those numbers were 33 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

Nine in ten students in an inner-city neighborhood in one of the richest and best-resourced cities in the world -- one that has been the object of concerted educational innovations on which we have been concentrating for 7 decades -- are unprepared to face the world. Think on it.

And if we haven't been able to come to grips with the meaning of these numbers -- of our general failure to educate and of our inability to penetrate inner-city communities -- the response to these results has already been more of the same. A standard New York City educator's reaction (as seen on New York One -- Time Warner Cable's 24-hour news channel in the city): "Well, these new standards have only been in place a short time (actually, as seen, these failures were apparent by 2010) and we haven't been able to prepare for the new exams. Education is an ongoing process -- give us a few years to adopt new teaching materials and teacher training." Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" wistfully -- should I say mournfully -- interviewed a developer of electronic educational "apps." So, the industries of preparing to educate and of educational gadgets (think "Baby Einstein") will continue to flourish.

But what have the schools been doing? The new tests and standards are not strange, alien measures -- they require greater understanding and mastery of the same basic subjects. English is still English, and math still math. That students at large have difficulties thinking carefully and critically, and that some communities are so far behind as to be living in almost a different world, are signs of general decline that we cannot reverse without a more basic rethinking of our society, one we have never been prepared to make, and are even less likely to do now.