crass competition: the race to mediocrity

Sometimes I wonder if we as a nation are regressing instead of progressing; it seems each new proposal to improve some aspect of our lives is another case of “one step forward, two steps back!”

I sincerely hope that the Obama Administration’s plans for health care and education reform usher in positive change for our nation, but I read another article that fed my skepticism.

I recently wrote about the lowering of education standards and how nonsensical it was; in the article cited in that piece, there was mention of stimulus dollars being allocated to “Obama’s vision of education reform.” This vision is split into four core categories – higher standards of education, recruiting and utilizing highly effective teachers (especially in poorer hoods), tracking student performance, and transforming “failing” schools.

Mind you, each of these goals are admirable; I agree with raising the bar, employing more effective teachers, and ensuring that students meet these new standards. I hope that Obama’s plan will carry out these strategies to the fullest. What I do have a problem with, however, are the proposed methods of reaching these goals.

You see, there’s a $5 billion pot of education funding up for grabs – and states have to compete for it! If the article is any indication, states earn a piece of the pot by devising education reform that meets the Obama Administration’s standards. Unfortunately, those standards place emphasis on such elements as charter schools and standardized test scores.

Consider one of the key barometers of this contest outlined by the Education Department…

…teachers and principals must be judged on several different measures of student achievement, but that test scores should play a significant role.

…and this statement from Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

We’ve said ‘significant’. We simply won’t reward folks that downplay or ignore test scores. We mean what we say.

Methinks states aren’t necessarily downplaying or ignoring test scores; if they weren’t significant, than standardized testing would be useless! Make no mistake – we need standardized tests as a barometer of student performance. That said, the true problem isn’t downplaying the scores – but overemphasizing them! This attempt to solve the skill problem created a new problem – so-called “teaching to the test.” As this article (also linked in my “low-standard lunacy” piece) found, some states lowered education standards to inflate test scores, giving the appearance of “improvement.” While this makes education systems look proficient, the reality is our nation’s students are getting shortchanged. This is why reports of sub-par education and test scores in many states (including NY) don’t surprise me.

I’ve said this many times, and I’ll say it once more: To realize improvement, revise school curricula so that students aren’t just ready for an exam, but also understand the material!

What good is knowledge without understanding? Mayhap that’s why overall student performance (not just on standardized tests) is sub-par.

Further illustrating this point is a recent NY Times article illustrating the sluggish growth in math scores since the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002. David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, gave his view about why the scores haven’t improved much:

A major reason…continues to be the lack of content knowledge and mathematics preparation of our teachers.

Oh dear – you mean to tell me even the teachers are struggling with this? What kind of curricula exist in our nation’s schools then, if even TEACHERS lack proper knowledge and instruction?! This is absurd!

Seven years! Why the hell are we putting up with this nonsense year after year? Every time we make strides, there’s some nonsensical element that holds our nation’s students back.

One step forward, two steps back.

Fast-forward to 2009 and we have this “competition” for a piece of the $5 billion education pot. States meeting the Obama Administration’s requirements for reform will get a cut of this money in April of next year. Thing is, the article I first linked suggests that “less than half the states are likely to win the money.” Does this mean states that don’t “win” this money will get the shaft? I certainly hope not!

I wonder whether the allotment will make way for significant education improvements? Taking NYC as an example, an early 2009 report found that the education budget for the 2007-2008 school year was well over $18 billion. (That’s more than 3.6 times the size of the pot!) Imagine when you combine the education budgets of all other states!

Given that, a new question arises – will the money be properly allocated so that we realize true reform? Now, I’m not talking about paper reform – you know, the one where improvements are supposedly made while our students fall further behind. I’m talking about real improvements – curricula that reinforce understanding and mastery of core concepts, not just higher test scores. After all, high scores may get our students in, but it takes much more to get them through, in my honest opinion.

Their future – as well as our nation’s future – is at stake, and higher education standards are key to their success. This is why I find this “competition” ridiculous – it suggests that some states will not get the help they need to close achievement gaps. Unless states impose higher standards, this will do nothing but widen the achievement gap, and therefore, encourage mediocrity.

That’s something that we cannot afford and must not accept, especially at this stage in the game.

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