Education Decline, One Step at a Time
Some time ago, I joined the National Council for the Social Studies, the NCSS. I've since had that membership canceled -- I suspect because they read some of my pieces and realize I'm neither a social studies teacher nor a groupie. However, thanks to that fleeting association, I remain on several NCSS e-mailing lists, and every so often something very interesting drops into my laptop.
The occasion was that the New York State Board of Regents (the body which oversees public school curricula) had scheduled discussion on "Alternative Pathways To Graduation." "Alternative to what?" one might in innocence ask -- "learning something?" But let's not get ahead of ourselves. What the e-mail intended to do was encourage members of the NCSS to contact the Board of Regents and let them hear "SMART ARGUMENTS to make it clear the concerns we have about the FUTURE OF NEW YORK STUDENTS and the FUTURE OF NEW YORK STATE EDUCATION."
It went on to suggest that those "SMART" arguments could be found by linking to a twenty-page memo to the board by one Ken Slentz, deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Education. And I guess he is pretty smart, because there's also an article on the net (Google Ken Slentz) telling just how smart the NYS Department of Education senior team is -- so smart, in fact, that the piece uses the E.F. Hutton metaphor to imply that when they talk, everybody stops and listens. Unfortunately its credibility is somewhat eroded by the fact that Ken Slentz wrote it himself about himself and his buddies, and it lauds the team's effort to advance something called SLO or SLOs at a recent conference. Just what SLO is, other than another in the long line of catchy programs we were assured would paint rainbows in the sky over every school, isn't very clear. Although a wag would suggest that SLO is not the smartest choice of an acronym for a program intend to define a student's learning objectives.
But I'm wandering again. Back to the twenty-page memo of "SMART" ideas intended to advance the discussion of "Alternative Pathways To Graduation." I read the whole thing, and in three words, there aren't any. "Smart" ideas, that is. And the reason this is so is because the memo is instead a twenty-page plea for help, because more and more people are beginning to notice what an awful job the educational establishment is doing.
... less than one-quarter of students performed at or above the Proficient level in history and government in 2010 (20 percent of 4th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders, and 12 percent of 12th graders) and there were no significant changes in percentage of students at the Advanced level. To put it another way, most 4th graders were unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, fewer than one-third of 8th graders could identify an important advantage that American forces had over the British in the American Revolution, and less than one quarter of the 12th graders knew that China was North Korea's ally during the Korean War.
Then there's that fact which Slentz laments, that the Armed Forces are refusing to accept many of the high school diplomas being issued (in particular the IEDs -- that is, the Individualized Educational Development diplomas -- and another really bad acronym, especially when you're trying to sell these things to the military). The fact is that private-sector employers don't value many high school diplomas -- that is, don't use diplomas (hey, there's a good acronym: DUD) -- in their hiring decisions; indeed, many of the high school students themselves no longer see a connection between any high school skill set and future employment and so simply leave when they are of age and go to work.
And so what are Slentz's "SMART" ideas about turning this situation around? Well, to bottom-line them, only more pretense. He makes four specific recommendations. Dropping one exam, reworking another into two (it seems to make it easier to pass -- i.e., if you don't like this test, take this other one), continuing with one test unchanged...and here's the big one:
Recommendation # 4: The Department recommends that the Board allows the use of an approved college and career ready CTE technical assessment in lieu of a required Regents exam, thereby allowing students to follow a CTE pathway to graduation.
Now, you can't pronounce CTE (or I can't anyway) so I guess it's not technically an acronym, but it is -- and I believe you would agree -- something cut from the ragged end of the same bolt of cloth. So what is it? What's a technical assessment? What's CTE? Well, at the end of the day, it's a judgment by your child's teachers (or a board of them) that he or she actually has learned the material. Not a test. And so that's the smartest of the smart ideas, the new "pathway": taking the school system's word for the fact that the students have learned something.
They should have called it JET -- Jettisoning Educational Tradition. This, treading on the magical heels of earlier fixes such as No Child Left behind, Rubrics, Outcome based Education, iLearning, Authentic Assessment, Cooperative Learning, Differentiating Instruction, Portfolio Assessment, Multisensory Instruction, Scaffolding, Whole Child Learning, etc., might just be for Slentz and his cohorts a trip to the same well just once too often. This might accelerate the growing awareness that public education should be privatized, chartered, and cut loose from the unions and the educrats in state capitols, and above all that the expense of publication should be more in line with its benefit. All of which the educational establishment refuses to see.
If a child doesn't know who Abraham Lincoln is, then you teach him or her. If he or she blows you off, you come right back to it until the child realizes that he is not going to move on until he masters a few basic facts about Lincoln. It's not rocket science. It's happy science, because there's almost nothing to match the thrill of watching a child's eyes open. Almost no match to hearing their "wow" when they learn something new about their history, their grandparents, some of the tasks earlier Americans performed not for themselves, but for the very children being taught. It isn't even modestly difficult, because most children do want to learn. Just like most people want to believe that our public schools have the long-term interests of our children in mind but are coming to the inescapable conclusion that the educational establishment doesn't exist in the same world.
And so march your CTE past the graveyard of all those earlier failed educational fads (FED) all you want, Mr. Slentz -- their ghosts are still going to get you. No matter how smart you think you are, and how dumb you think we are.
Richard F. Miniter is the author of The Things I Want Most (BDD, Random House) and the coming e-book Conversations With My Graddaughter. He writes in Stone Ridge, New York and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.