Three decades ago, a presidential commission warned that our students’ educational shortcomings had become so pronounced as to reach a tipping point that endangered national security.
Since then, there has been a rash of reforms promoted by politicians and policymakers designed to stop the decline and restore America’s educational exceptionalism.
Yet U.S. scholastic test scores still lag behind those of several countries. And though our graduate schools excel for the most part, far too many of our high school graduates are simply unprepared for college.
One-quarter of entering freshmen at the University of California are not ready for college-level math or writing, while at the 23-campus California State University system, more than one-third of their incoming freshmen need remedial help. Nearly three-quarters of community college students are below reading proficiency standards.
Which raises the question: How can high school graduates be so deficient in basic learning skills?
The answer: Chronic grade inflation and the delusional concept that moving them along the educational conveyer belt is positive reinforcement.
During my 17 years as a high school teacher in southeastern Michigan, I expected nothing less than maximum effort from all of my students. They groaned at having to answer essay questions and write papers.
They moaned about my flyspecking their spelling and grammar because I taught history, not English. They were offended when I gave them D’s and F’s. But at year’s end, they had learned a fair amount of history, and many of them thanked me for pushing them so unrelentingly.
Some even went to college, the first in their families to do so. And several have stayed in touch with me.
Jan Bialko graduated with a degree in engineering from Colorado State University and is project manager for a trucking company in Renton, Wash. Another former student tested out of basic history at University of Michigan because of what she learned in my class.
I received periodic warnings from a guidance counselor who insisted these kids, many of whom came from poor, uneducated, single-parent families, were simply not up to my standards.
In fact, I found that most kids are pragmatic enough to perform to the level of the teacher’s expectations once they realize their teacher is serious. Conversely, lowering the expectations bar teaches kids they are entitled to keep moving up the education ladder so long as they show up and go through the motions.
It’s time to raise the academic bar that will help ensure that students learn the requisite skills to enter college or the workforce. According to State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, that’s precisely what the controversial Common Core academic standards are designed to do. And why California is committed to implementing those standards. The state board has suspended its Academic Performance Index for this school year to give teachers and students more time to adjust to the standardized tests aligned with Common Core standards.
A renowned education expert and professor emeritus at Stanford, Kirst is serving his second stint as board president. He held that post from 1977 to 1981 under Gov. Jerry Brown, who reappointed him in 2011.
Kirst believes the new standards will help students focus more and dig deeper to hone their reasoning skills. Rather than glide through rote memorization exams with “bubble testing or multiple choice,” he says students “need to think to solve problems and put together evidence to come to conclusions. They need to apply what they learn.”
Kirst is correct.
Conservative critics, typified by Californians United Against Common Core, contend that this government-mandated reform will undermine public education. Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, worries that Common Core will erode “competitive federalism,” the very essence of state’s rights. The former U.S. assistant secretary of education believes the new standards could “profoundly alter the structure of American K-12 public education.
But the critics’ remedy for improving student achievement consists of ceding even greater control to local school districts. And that amounts to the triumph of hope over experience.
Common Core is not a panacea for public education. It does not dictate curricula, but it sets goals for K-12 classrooms that emphasize depth over breadth. It proceeds from the solid premise that good teaching challenges students to think for themselves and, more important, discover a love of learning that never ends. Henry Adams’ aphorism about a teacher affecting eternity should be the starting point for improving student achievement.
Kirst warns that raising the academic bar will result in fewer students meeting or exceeding standards in the beginning. And that could exacerbate the gap between the haves and have-nots in our highly stratified school systems. But he believes scores will rise as teachers and students become better prepared.
His prescription for subpar public schools is certainly preferable to sticking with their self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations.
Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He currently teaches at American River College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.