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LETTER: What would happen if our schools decided to be honest?

To the Editor:

Our public schools are failing, but our teachers, our school principals, our school superintendents and even our school boards assure us that things are not as bad as some believe and promise things will improve and all that is necessary is more time, more highly certified teachers, more parental involvement and more school funding.

Because they are experts, it is difficult for ordinary citizens to challenge them; for undereducated poor and welfare parents, the parents of the children most at risk, challenging or parental involvement is impossible.

But there is convincing evidence of school failure. Because public school officials lie, exaggerate or deny the failure of their schools, our national government mandates the employment of commonly agreed upon annual standardized testing to provide a means to compare schools and students.

In Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, we have chosen the NECAP, the New England Common Assessment Program. This makes it possible to objectively evaluate different schools and allows me to compare my great-grandchildren’s test scores in places as distant as Wales, Waterville and Millinocket in Maine and Montgomery in Vermont.

The NECAP also reaffirms that economically disadvantaged students perform poorly; it reaffirms that Somali and Bantu students, who struggle with English and who as a group are also economically disadvantaged, perform poorly. Our local educators lean heavily upon these two groups in the formulation of their excuses and when I want to challenge them, I compare the “White” demographic category. This demographic excludes our immigrant population and makes it difficult for educators to formulate excuses.

I also choose to compare mathematics because vocabulary deficiencies hindering the economically disadvantaged would be minimized in mathematics. I have chosen the fifth grade for elementary schools, simply because my oldest great-grandchildren are fifth-grade students (next year it will be sixth-grade students). Thus, the results of NECAP standardized testing allow us to compare “White” fifth-grade students in mathematics in all of Lewiston’s elementary schools.

In Farwell, 29% failed to score proficient or higher; in Geiger it as 38%; in Longley, there were an insufficient number of “White” students, but 94% of the students in the “Black or African American” demographic failed to score proficient or higher. In Martel, 57% of the “White” students failed to score proficient or higher; in McMahon, 50% failed; in Montello, 37% failed.

This educational failure, unlike wine, does not get better as students get older. The middle school’s “White” eighth graders were administered the NECAP last October. In testing their reading abilities, 24% of the tested eighth graders failed to score proficient or higher. When tested for their mathematical abilities, 47% failed. When tested for writing, 38% failed.

After seven to nine years of public education, one-third to one-half of our “White” eighth-grade students failed to learn or were inadequately taught. In high school, 50% or more failed to score proficient or higher on the most recent SAT administered to high school juniors.

Our educators plan to more highly credential some of our teachers with the hopeful expectation this will cause an overall improvement. Our teachers are already professional educators, graduates of our own university system and certified by our own state government. Any teacher seeking an additional certification is already a good teacher and differs from their peers only in that they are willing to take this extra step.

Recognizing them for their extra efforts will cost us a little more and perhaps they should be recognized, but this will do little to improve test scores. However, while the results are pending, and for an additional year, it will provide an illusion of progress.

Let us pause for a moment to consider the ridiculous, which sometimes helps to clarify a difficult-to-understand situation. Suppose, instead of staffing our schools with highly qualified teachers, we instead recruited them from people strolling down the sidewalk and required that they be the caliber of substitute teachers and teacher’s aides. And suppose, since they cost us about a third the cost of a highly qualified teacher, we hired them in twice or three times the numbers of teachers and let them teach our students. Could we expect academic improvement? I don’t know: but they would have to fail more than 50 percent of the time to do any worse.

Our public schools have become a place where highly qualified teachers pretend to teach and where students, promoted before they were ready, are forced to pretend to learn. A school year passes and some students learn and some don’t, but they all proceed into the next grade just as if they had. Parents and their school-age children are relieved; each are falsely reassured that they are performing satisfactorily. Students begin the following year in a higher grade, a year older, but some of them begin the new grade without the academic growth they required and their teachers, one year closer to retirement, begin the year with a new class.

Thus, schools, as if they were squeezing toothpaste from a tube, continue to promote failing students from grade to grade, always advancing their students, never pausing, until they graduate them from high school. We have to believe that teachers and their supervisors have deliberately chosen to do this. It is just too difficult to believe it happens accidently and without intent.

Ordinary people know this has to be wrong because when we “pass” improperly prepared students into the next grade, if it is not dishonest, it is at least deliberately deceptive. And if it does not involve a lie, must at least involve a fib. This process may be an expeditious choice for educators; it doesn’t do much for young students. Not surprising, many reach high school inadequately prepared and leave high school functionally illiterate.

What would happen if our schools decided to be honest? What if they pretended to be a manufacturing business and had to produce a quality product? Suppose that schools decided to ensure that every student, or as many as practicable, learned what was required for their particular grade. Suppose that schools continued teaching the one-third or more that didn’t learn even after the regular school year ended. Suppose that teachers extended the school year for these students for an additional three weeks into the summer vacation period. And after the three weeks, those students that mastered their lessons could advance into the next grade; those that didn’t could repeat the grade.

The middle school, the gateway to high school, would be an ideal place to begin this policy. We could start by providing a random standardized test that would be given to the middle school’s eighth-grade class at the end of the school year. For those that failed, a make-up test could be administered after the three weeks of summer school, and only those students that satisfactorily and ultimately passed the test would be admitted into high school.

This testing, to have the greatest validity, should be administered by the receiving high school teachers. These teachers, assured that they were receiving adequately prepared students, would have only themselves to blame if they couldn’t then produce valid high school graduates.

When we seek to reform public education, we must begin with the premise that each and every normally developing child is capable of becoming a scholar. We must also acknowledge that there will be existing socio-economic handicaps that may impede their success. With this acknowledgement, we should do all we can to help children overcome handicaps they didn’t choose.

If we can become honest and promote only the properly prepared and strive to prepare those that aren’t, then we should be able to graduate valid scholars. In some instances we may not be able to advance our students beyond the eighth grade, but we should be assured if they successfully complete that grade that they have validly done so. This would be preferable to our present practice of graduating them from high school without eighth-grade abilities.

If we are ever to correct the failure of public education, we will first have to agree to be honest. So long as we allow improperly prepared students to advance from grade to grade, and close our eyes to it, we will not see a problem and our children will not have a quality education.

Dick Sabine



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