From Mediocre to Excellent
Education was a priority in my family. I was a schoolteacher, my dad was a superintendent of an area technical school, my brother was a high school guidance counselor, and my sister-in-law was head of a special-education program. We went into the field of education because we thought that we could make a difference.
How is education really faring today? Why do we keep hearing and reading that our schools in the U.S. are failing? Students from Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and more countries all score higher than American children in almost every area, especially mathematics, science and reading.
Are you shocked by this statistic? This was unimaginable a generation ago.
We should all be asking ourselves: how did we let this happen, and how do we get out of this situation?
Ronald Reagan was concerned with our educational system in the 1980′s. He formed a commission to study this problem, and the underlying issue that was exposed was a rising tide of mediocrity. This was thirty years ago, and not much has changed.
Mediocrity seems to have swept over our schools like a virus. Yet, we have doubled our spending (in inflation adjusted dollars) on k-12 public education. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science or reading. And ACT, the national organization that administers college-admissions tests, discovered that 76% of high-school graduates “were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.”
Another study revealed mediocrity as well. A Global Report Card (GRC) was developed to compare academic achievement in math and reading between 2004 and 2007 for U.S. school districts to the average achievements in a set of 25 countries with developed economies. Compared to students in these countries, we did not fare too well. View the results for your district here: http://globalreportcard.org.
It’s often assumed that students in affluent suburban districts are getting an excellent education. The GRC study found that while these suburban towns may have outperformed their urban neighbors, they did not do as well in international comparisons. Relative to the GRC’s global comparison group here’s how a few affluent communities performed in math:
* White Plains, NY was only at the 39th percentile
* Grosse Point, MI was at the 56th percentile
* Evanston, IL was at the 48th percentile
* Montgomery County, MD at the 50th percentile
* Fairfax, VA at the 49th percentile
* Shaker Heights, OH at the 50th percentile
* Lower Merion, PA at the 66th percentile
* Ladue, MO at the 62nd percentile
* Plano, TX at the 64th percentile
These communities are all among the wealthiest in the United States. All of them are overwhelmingly white and thought to be elite. But most of them are barely keeping pace with the average students in other developed countries.
Should we be satisfied that much of our education today is indoctrination rather than instruction? Or should our students be encouraged to use critical thinking skills and therefore be allowed to express an opinion? Take the case of Hunter Rogers, a high school student from North Carolina. He recently expressed his thoughts during a classroom dialogue when he compared President Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney on the subject of bullying. When Rogers pointed out in class that President Obama also bullied someone in his youth just as Mitt Romney, his teacher began chastising him and told him he was not allowed to disrespect the President.
This teacher was suspended (with pay) for her behavior, which was captured on video. The school district issued a statement saying that they expect “all students and employees to be respectful in the school environment and for all teachers to maintain professionalism in the classroom.”
Is the school district missing the point here? Is the point professionalism or indoctrination in the classroom? Are more and more teachers teaching from their personal viewpoints or are they encouraging students to gather information, think critically, and come to their own conclusions?
The purpose of education should be to prepare students to compete in the world today. Do we want our students to simply be indoctrinated with certain viewpoints, or do we want our students to grow up and be able to draw conclusions on their own? Should we continue to allow indoctrination in our schools or should we encourage our young people to come to conclusions about government spending, the environment, a free-market system, the economy, etc. on their own?
So, what can we do? We could stay mediocre, or, we can consider the advice of Dr. Roland Fryer, an economist who started The Educational Innovation Laboratory at Harvard. Dr. Fryer strongly believes in charter schools, but he believes that the following principles work for all schools:
* Hire effective principals and teachers in every school and get rid of the ineffective ones.
* Have more instructional time and extend the school day and year.
* Make use of data to drive instruction. Always be aware of students’ strengths and weaknesses, and when the students don’t learn it, re-teach it.
* Have high-dosage, individualized tutoring so every child can learn.
* Establish a culture of high expectations for all.
Perhaps you have read this and feel it does not apply to you. You may not have children or your children may be grown and out of our educational system. However, we live in a global world today. This is a world of strongly motivated competitors, and our students need to become productive, independent adults who compete in the global marketplace. Future generations are depending on us to change our failing schools to make this happen. If we do not, we will only have ourselves to blame for our children’s future.
We must pull our schools, our children, and our educators out of the mire of mediocrity and into excellence in order to survive in a highly competitive industrialized world.
Be involved in your community. Vote in school board members who share your viewpoint for change. Find out how your school district is spending money. Vote in candidates who believe in quality education. Be instrumental in bringing back change that will prepare us for a better America.
Our schools are failing. Don’t fail our students!
 The National Commission on Excellence in Education – A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform – http://www.csus.edu/indiv/l/langd/Nation_at_Risk.pdf
 Education Next – http://educationnext.org/when-the-best-is-mediocre/
 Harvard-Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City – http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/files/effective_schools.pdf