Sliding Scores

I don’t think standardized tests should be the be-all and end-all in terms of measuring an individual student’s knowledge or preparedness, but when the overall average scores on standardized tests start to reveal long-term trends, we might want to start paying attention.

boy-in-classroom-articleThat’s why the ACT’s announcement earlier this week about a significant slide in college readiness — based on testing of more than 1.9 million high school graduates, which amounts to more than half of the 2018 American high school graduates — should be a cause for concern.  According to the ACT, the “percentage of ACT-tested graduates who met or surpassed the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math—suggesting they are ready to succeed in a first-year college algebra class—fell to its lowest level since 2004” and “students’ average score on the ACT math test dropped to its lowest level in more than 20 years—down to 20.5 (on a scale of 1 to 36), continuing a slide from 21.1 in 2012 to 20.7 last year.”  Readiness in English, reading ability, and science also declined.

Even worse, the ACT announced that “[a] growing percentage of students are falling at the bottom of the preparedness scale,” with 35 percent of 2018 graduates met none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks — which means they are likely to struggle in math, reading, English, and science as they move on to college.

It’s hard to tell how well our public schools are doing at preparing kids for college, but falling average test scores are a pretty compelling indication that things aren’t moving in the right direction.  We should once again be taking a careful look at what our public schools are teaching, and how.  If we aren’t teaching our kids what they need to know to live productive lives, we’re failing them — and failing the country.  For years now, people have been talking about how the jobs of the future are going to exist in technology-related fields.  Who is going to fill those jobs and allow America to compete globally if our kids can’t read or do math and science?

Can The Ban

The Duluth, Minnesota school system has decided to remove two of the finest American novels ever written from its curriculum because it is concerned that today’s students will be upset by them.

huck-finnThe two books are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many scholars consider to be the best American novel yet written, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which is clearly one of the finest novels written during the 20th century.  They will both be removed from the syllabus for the school system’s ninth grade and eleventh grade English classes, although the school system will allow copies of the books to remain in the school library.  The school district said it was removing the books from the curriculum because of concerns they might make certain students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”

Of course, both books directly tackle the issues of race in America, with Huckleberry Finn taking an unflinching look at slavery in pre-Civil War America and To Kill A Mockingbird focusing on bigotry and prejudice against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.  Both books use the “n-word,” both books feature horrible racist characters, and both books involve upsetting scenes, appalling brutality, and themes that reflect poorly on the American soul.  That’s what makes the two books such uniquely powerful exercises in American literature.  And there’s no doubt that reading the books and considering the issues of slavery and racism they raise, and then talking about them in a classroom, will make students of all races and backgrounds feel uncomfortable — but there’s nothing wrong with a little discomfort along the path to greater understanding.  It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who reads either of those books could come away thinking that racism is good or that the vile, ignorant racist characters are to be emulated in any way.  I think both books in fact teach a good lesson and also have the value of demonstrating, through compelling stories, how the history of slavery and racism have stained our American character.

And, of course, removing the two acknowledged classics from the school’s curriculum sends an important, but bad, message about freedom of speech and that there are some things that are just too upsetting for students to be exposed to.

The Duluth school district’s curriculum director said that its schools planned to replace the novels with texts that “teach the same lessons” without using racist language.  Good luck with that!  How can you teach the lesson that racism is bad without exposing students to the brutality, unfairness, and ignorance of racists and their true nature?

When A Letter-Writing Campaign Goes Terribly Wrong

Sometimes you wonder about what kind of schooling American kids are getting.

Here’s a recent example. The New York Post wrote an article about a high school — the Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers — in which the curriculum appeared to be less than rigorous. The school, miffed by the unflattering article, encouraged students to write letters to the Post to complain about the piece.

Unfortunately for the school, some students did — and their letters confirm that they apparently have only the most dim comprehension of grammar, spelling, and other basics of the English language.

I know there are large, looming issues about public schools, and private schools, and charter schools, and how we can best prepare our young people for the future in a hyper-competitive global economy. It’s incredibly sad, however, that high school students not only would write letters that are so filled with errors, but also that they lack the basic self-awareness to understand that they are bordering on functional illiteracy and are exposing that fact whenever they put pen to paper. We are failing these kids.

Forget About “Competitive Balance” And Think About Sportsmanship

Back in May, Ohio high school principals showed surprisingly good sense and voted down a proposal to try to achieve “competitive balance” in Ohio high school athletics.  By a close vote, the principals rejected a reformulation of how teams are assigned to divisions that would have considered factors like open enrollment, historical performance, and socioeconomic factors.  In reality, the proposal was a response to complaints of public high school coaches and administrators who are tired of losing to parochial and private school teams in the playoffs and want to “level the playing field.”

Now I see that the Ohio High School Athletic Association is reviving the issue and will survey its members to “gather feedback on the competitive balance issue.”  In the meantime, an OHSAA committee will consider “more balanced” methods of placing schools into divisions.  Some are speculating that the public schools and the private schools will eventually be put into separate tournaments in order to promote perceived “fairness.”

It’s hard to believe that high school administrators don’t have more important things to worry about than “competitive balance” in athletics.  In any case, isn’t the eternal quest for a purported “level playing field” antithetical to what high school sports is supposed to be about in the first place?  Anyone who has participated in a high school sports is told that the goal is improvement, team play, sportsmanship, and playing the game fairly — not winning at all costs.  The fact that administrators have noticed that parochial schools are beating the daylights out of public schools, and are trying to rig the division assignment system to prevent that result, demonstrates that winning is truly the ultimate goal — and if it can’t be accomplished through hard work, dedication, and good coaching, we’ll try to get there by changing the rules.  Pretty pathetic!

The Zen Of Kid Art

In this era of hard budget choices, many cash-strapped schools have put arts programs on the chopping block.  The stated rationale usually is that arts programs aren’t “essential.”  Such statements, are, I think, code for “no one has to draw or paint on standardized tests, so we can cut arts programs without putting our rankings on those tests at risk.”

I believe that cutting school arts programs is a disaster not only for schools and students, but also for parents.  The most treasured items in my office are pieces of artwork that the kids have created over the years.  Some of the artwork has been created at home, but a lot of it was the product of a school arts class where the kids were assisted by a friendly and patient arts teacher who provided encouragement, ideas, and plenty of available arts supplies.  My office would be so much poorer without Richard and Russell’s various paper mache, wire, clay, and paint and paper creations.

The most impressive thing about kid art is its absolute purity.  The creative impulses flow out, unrestrained by notions of form or style or color conventions.  A horse might be blue and a house might be purple because that is how the child wanted it to be.  And when you look at the result it works, and it cannot help but bring a smile to your face.

For that reason, kid art continues to be happily displayed years after the papers that get an “A” are tossed in a box and forgotten.  Parents of children in school districts where arts programs have been eliminated don’t know how much they are missing.

I recognize that math and science are important, but we live in a world where success often is the product of creative thought — be it the creative thought that leads to new invention, like the iPod, or to a new approach to providing a service, like Federal Express, or to some other product, movie, literature, or process improvement.  Why in the world would we want to cut the one school program that is specifically designed to help children tap into their inner creativity and express it?

Making A Federal Case Out Of It

In case you missed it, last week was the first “federal anti-bullying summit.”

According to statistics quoted at the summit, in 2007 one out of three middle school and high school students reported being bullied at some point.  Does anyone really think that percentage is greater than it was in, say, 1970?  Speaking as an overweight, pimply, glasses-wearing junior high school student of that era, I can assure you from bitter personal experience that bullying was alive and well in the America of decades gone by.  Watch A Christmas Story or Back To The Future if you don’t believe me.

So, what has changed?  Just the fact that the federal government now seems to be involved in everything.  And listen to what Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, had to say about the federal response to bullying, according to the article linked above:  “Duncan promised new coordination among federal agencies, better data to understand the problem and solutions, and more federal funding, especially for those schools with the greatest needs.”

So, we will try to “solve” local bullying problems by getting federal agencies more involved, doing some national-level numbers crunching, and throwing more federal bucks at the schools that apparently are the most inept at dealing with their specific bullying problems.  Does anyone else find this ridiculous, as well as pointless?

Have our local school boards and school administrators really become so feeble and pathetic that they have to look to Washington, D.C. to figure out how to deal with the playground bully?  Ralphie didn’t need the feds to tell him how to deal with Scut Farkas, and Marty managed to take care of Biff without seeking federal funding.  Wouldn’t we all be better off if our local institutions and school principals actually did their jobs and the federal government focused on issues that are truly national in scope and importance?

The Northport Promise

Kish and I have spent some time in Northport, Michigan on our vacation, and you can’t go into a local business without seeing a collection receptacle and a sign for the “Northport Promise.”  It turns out that the Northport Promise is a tuition assistance program for students of local schools, to help them attend Michigan public colleges and universities.  In 2010 seven Northport students received full or partial Northport Promise scholarships, and since the first scholarships were awarded in 2008 the program has provided $71,000 in tuition assistance to local college students.

What a great concept and program!  Kish and I have frequented some of the local businesses supporting the program and have made some donations to the Northport Promise.  It is wonderful to see a local community and local businesses band together, develop their own program to achieve the important goal of providing opportunities to local youth, and then see their plans successfully realized.  It just goes to show that we don’t need government to direct every activity and program, and that well-meaning private citizens who work together can have a real positive impact on their communities.

Our Tax Dollars (Not) At Work

I am a faithful supporter of the New Albany-Plain Local school system.  I always vote for school levies and believe that a strong public school system is a crucial element of any successful and prosperous community.

That is why I was infuriated when I read the article in the New Albany News about the Board of Education’s decision to approve the resignation of Steve Castle, the superintendent of schools.  Under the deal that has been worked out, Dr. Castle will become “immediate past superintendent” and receive the benefits and salary due under his contract until it expires on July 31, 2011 — which comes to $173,666 in salary, plus benefits.  The article reports that if Castle find other employment during that one-year period, he will receive $134,769 in severance benefits, plus the difference between his New Albany salary and the salary at his new job.  What will Dr. Castle do for his $173,666, plus benefits?  He will “help to facilitate the transition of the office of superintendent” and “perform other services for the board yet to be detailed.”

Why are taxpayers paying Dr. Castle $173,666, plus benefits, to twiddle his thumbs?  Although the New Albany News story doesn’t tell us, a Columbus Dispatch article states that the Board and Dr. Castle disagree about their respective “visions” and strategic planning for the school district.  Ironically, the school board also found fault with his approach to teacher compensation and his recommendation of additional teacher increases even after the economy went into recession, and three of the members of the school board were elected in November on a fiscal restraint platform.  Yet now we are going to spend nearly $175,000 for an administrator to sit idle while we also pay a new person to assume the superintendent’s role until a permanent replacement can be found.

That is not a prudent use of tax dollars — particularly not during a tough recessionary period when schools should be squeezing every penny.  I don’t know whether Dr. Castle was a good or bad superintendent; that decision rests with the school board.  Once the school board decided that Dr. Castle’s contract would not be renewed after it expired in July 2011, however, it should have figured out a way to deal with the “vision,” planning, and other issues and work with him during his last year on the job while a new superintendent was located.  This isn’t like baseball, where team owners routinely bear a fired manager’s contract payments as part of a cost of doing business.  Taxpayers should not be paying ex-administrators to do nothing.