By Andrew Wilk
Education is a wonderland of pithy sayings. However, there are at least three oft-repeated phrases that get tossed around again and again that I believe harm both our profession and educational mission.
— "Every student deserves a high school diploma."
To continue to transform a credential into an entitlement is a problem on multiple levels. First, we immediately remove the responsibility for success from the shoulders of students and place it on their schools and teachers, which inevitably leads, unsurprisingly, to all manner of nonsense designed to graduate students with little concern for academic achievement. Second, we actively encourage schools to dumb down curriculum in order to improve their graduation rates if we continue to insist that granting a diploma is synonymous with actual education.
Today a meager 25 percent of high school graduates are fully prepared for college or careers when they are handed a diploma, and we put this population at extraordinary risk of failure in higher education and employment — a slow motion and ongoing disaster for our nation. Moreover, weak academic standards are an open invitation to government-led social engineering in our nation's classrooms, so our entire K-12 system finds itself where it is at present: struggling in a spider's web of contradictory legislative mandates that seek to ordain outcomes at the expense of actual learning.
Every student should have the opportunity to learn in a school committed to high academic standards and staffed by excellent teachers who are content experts in their academic subjects; the rest, however, is the responsibility of the student. Just as our schools cheat our students if they are satisfied with low expectations, students cheat themselves if they hold everybody but themselves accountable for their own success.
— "Public education is suffering because we are 'forced to teach to the test.'"
I realize this has become a mantra among so many teachers and administrators who denigrate standardized tests used to measure learning outcomes — and it is a lovely bit of misdirection meant to distract taxpayers from the problem of weak academic achievement in our nation's public schools. As an excuse for our nation's surpassingly mediocre public schools, the notion that "teaching to the test" is the underlying problem fails on two basic levels.
First, to make the case that it is a problem to ask students to demonstrate, based on their grade level, they can read and understand a challenging selection, edit a piece of writing to correct obvious errors, and do some arithmetic or mathematics requires one to discard the concept of distinguishing between success and failure in our public schools. There are certainly legitimate concerns that students sometimes may not take the tests seriously or suffer unnecessary stress from the testing procedures, but both of these problems can be addressed if all concerned are willing to work toward common sense solutions.
However, both students and educators need to understand what is — and is not — being learned in our nation's classrooms so academic deficiencies can be identified and addressed, and standardized testing is a key part of this process.
In addition, if your assertion is that your students are failing to learn due to all the class time you spend teaching to the dreaded test, an obvious question suggests itself: Why is it that so few students actually pass the test that is the supposed educational priority?
I hate to have to be so blunt but, if some public school teachers are incapable of educating students to a reasonable and well-considered standard of academic achievement that will equip them for success in college and careers, get out of the classroom — and please do not then become a school administrator. It may be best for all if you find a job where you will not be damaging children for a lifetime. Education is no different from any other profession: its challenges are best borne by those with intelligence, enthusiasm, and a drive to succeed. Clock watchers and whiners are better off elsewhere.
Finally, on the subject of standardized testing, we all need to prepare ourselves for a vociferous chorus of complaints as new — and more rigorous — assessment tests based on the Common Core standards roll out across the nation. States that have already started to test to the new standards set to the goal of college and career readiness upon high school graduation are seeing dramatic test score declines. There will be, as a consequence, a lot of ranting about the tyranny of the tests and the unreasonable goals of the Common Core standards.
Expect many demands for waivers, delays, and rollbacks regarding the new testing standards from every corner of our nation in the years to come. I hope we can resist the urge to sweep bad news under the rug in order to make the adults running our nation's schools more comfortable.
— "Our schools are wonderful, but our students are not."
The laundry list of complaints about today's students is as long as my arm. They are rude. They are poor. They are being raised by horrible people. They are over (or perhaps under) medicated. They have poor attention spans. They are lazy.
Get it? How can we possibly be expected to educate these little losers?
I have another explanation to offer: These are, in fact, the very same children we've been producing since the dawn of humanity in a slightly different wrapper. Curious, anxious, insecure, lonely and desperate for love, typically growing up in less than ideal circumstances, shockingly tender, and in dire need of reliable and trustworthy adults to take them in hand and show them the path to adulthood.
I am certain that a frustrated parent wearing a mastodon skin was squatting in a cave a long time ago complaining about how little Yog let the fire go out and can't remember to bring his spear inside at night. "What is the matter with young people these days?" has been the same plaintive cry throughout the ages.
I don't believe the problem is our children. It is, sadly, our schools that are often the dysfunctional player in the drama. We see too many examples of educators who expect too little, complain too much, gossip and spread rumors, fail to embrace responsibilities, resist all accountability, resent when their failures are pointed out, and build an emotional wall that separates them from those with whom they need to connect.
Our educators are, in other words, often guilty of the very shortcomings they claim their students possess.
Therefore, who is — if educators sometimes fail to act like responsible adults — truly at fault when a student does not learn? Do we need to be certain we are consistently living up to the standards we expect of our students before we so readily point the finger elsewhere to explain why American public education is — after decades of reforms and trillions of dollars in additional spending — still producing so many high school graduates who cannot write coherently, read thoughtfully, or calculate accurately?
Let's stop tossing out easy excuses and get down to the time-consuming, difficult, and sometimes tedious business of holding both ourselves and our students to the highest possible standards. It is the very least we owe to our nation, communities, families — and, most of all, our children.
Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.