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It’s Not Polite to Point

Since the year 2000, students from the United States have been outperformed by students from countries of comparable wealth like Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, China, Singapore, and South Korea. This time, Ireland and Poland joined the winners’ circle. Even the richest students in America failed to match the results of equally well-off students from other countries.

The idea that American educators and academics should not be concerned because there are already more students graduating from college than can be utilized by the labor market is unacceptable on two counts. First, the implication is that our students are already too successful, and we should slow them down. Is there anyone who doesn’t find this position absurd? Second, education is not just about joining the labor market. Among other things, it is about developing the intellectual tools to create new and inventive niches in the market. Who remembers vinyl records? CDs anyone? How about MP3s? You get the picture.

If we agree that there is a problem and it should be solved, if possible, then we should first look at the solutions that have already been in place for quite a while now and assess them. That’s easy. They haven’t worked. Overburdening teachers with producing “accountability data” keeps them away from their chosen profession at the expense of the students. Insisting that teachers spend the majority of the year preparing their students for standardized tests has taken the students even further from their hope of actually being educated. The proliferation of standardized tests has resulted in the plundering of academic skills across the board and the country.

Basing a teacher’s success on the students’ standardized test scores is as meaningless as it is illogical. Test prep is not teaching, and it is quite possible for a student to learn what is legitimately important in a subject and still do poorly on a standardized test. It would be unfair to assess the student’s ability based on the results of such a standardized test; it would be criminal to assess the teacher.

Improving our public schools, offering more training and “support” for teachers, the federal government “encouraging” states to agree on common education standards, demanding “stronger” math and science education, requiring more “rigor” in the nations high schools, providing additional resources to prepare students for college-level studies, demanding “stronger” math and science education, etc. are all code for, “The teachers are to blame for the failure of our students to compete academically with their international peers.” Why not? Teachers are an easy target and a relatively small voting block.

The idea that we must “cure” poverty in order to set the educational ship aright at least begins to take a look at what just might be the most significant problem in American education today. The problem just might not be in the schools, and if it is, it just may not be the teachers. Instead of mindlessly pointing fingers, why is no one asking the question, “What is going on inside the walls of today’s American household that is affecting the academic performance of our children, both positively and negatively?”

Where are the longitudinal studies that follow students from placenta to PhD that will give us real insight into who succeeds, who fails, and why? There are billions of dollars being spent in this country on studies to determine things like “What really makes men happy?” No kidding! This was recently reported on the nightly news in New York City. It seems we could throw some of that money at trying to find out why so many of our children are not learning, why some are learning, and how can we bring the conditions of the successful students to bear on the lives of those who are not successful. After all, the first step to finding a solution is identifying the problem, not pointing a finger at the easiest target.

by John DePonte