"A Nation at Risk cited some very mind-numbing statistics, including 23 million functionally illiterate adults."
In 1983 the landmark publication of the report A Nation at Risk seemed to shake our nation from its slumber regarding the scary truth about education in America. It detailed how there were serious problems in schools in this country and recommended fixes for what ailed schools. Unfortunately, twenty-eight years later there are still many things that are wrong in education, despite George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program and President Barack Obama’s drive to improve our nation’s schools.
Recently Mr. Obama said, “In the 21st century, it’s not enough to leave no child behind. We need to help every child get ahead. We need to get every child on a path to academic excellence.” Of course, that is a terrific sound bite, but we have to wonder if it has teeth. We have to see real proactive measures taking place here and now, not in some nebulous and undefined future place.
The problem now is that there are too many schools seen as “failing” schools. This number continues to rise. Here in New York City, there have been schools closed because of failing grades. New ones (especially Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s darling charter schools) have risen to take their place, but students are still struggling. Statistics are not conclusive about the effects of smaller schools (like charters), but the reality is that more schools than ever before are seen as failing here in New York (and across the country). As the state looks to make evaluation of teachers more stringent, and with the new Common Core Standards looming, it is likely that more than ever before we will be faced with schools that are seen as lacking or failing.
What is actually wrong with our schools? An easy out is for one to look to the classrooms and blame teachers. For me, this is what is wrong with what has been happening for years. Instead of addressing many other larger and more important concerns, the easy fix has always been to target the teacher and look for ways to replace him or her. Things like “merit pay” or tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores only exacerbate this problem.
“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” Sound familiar? These are the opening words of the 1983 report. It is worth noting that this was a time before the Internet connected world of today; the time of the Soviet Union and other supposedly nefarious countries and people wanting to destroy us. This was pre-September 11th and all the concerns of terrorism that haunt us now. If I didn’t know those words were written in 1983, I’d wager they were composed yesterday about our current state of education and place in the world.
And things are not getting better. A Nation at Risk cited some very mind-numbing statistics, including 23 million functionally illiterate adults, 13 percent functionally illiterate 17 year olds, 17 year olds lacking “higher order” thinking skills, and American students many times placing last amongst the nations of the world in achievement (based on data from other industrialized nations). Today about 45 million adults are functionally illiterate, so despite an increase in the nation’s overall population, it is apparent that the warnings of this Reagan-era report were not in any ways tangibly effective, nor has No Child Left Behind and the current efforts of President Obama’s administration.
Why is this happening? If standards are increasingly more stringent, shouldn’t we have an upturn in achievement? Where is the smoking gun in the death of what once was the finest education system in the world? The answer is that American education has been undone by endless bureaucratic minutiae, the drive for testing without a concern for other meaningful instruction, and a feeling like the baby has already been thrown out with the bath water, so why not just give up on the baby?
The most terrifying thing about No Child Left Behind wasn’t that it didn’t work very well, but rather that it worked at all. While it seems Bush’s mandate on the surface should have been a good thing (who can argue with an “all children can learn” philosophy?), the problem is that while all children should learn, many of them learn differently. The core problem is that differentiated instruction is not at the heart of many of these initiatives, and the only way that all kids are going to learn is via it.
The reality is that now students are not reading, writing, listening, or speaking any more than they did in school back in 1983; in fact, with the Internet, video games, i-Pods, cell phones, and a host of other electronic distractions, they are probably doing much less of this. Reading a story? Reading a poem? Reading a complete book? The harsh reality – and I have asked students about this – is that many students have not read a book from cover to cover by the time they are in eighth grade. This slap in the face may be news to some of you, but couple that with less time for homework due to more time needed for texting and video horseplay, and you can get an idea of how high the deck is stacked against us.
Some teachers are definitely the problem too. Many are not comfortable with reading long selections (let alone writing long responses). I have spoken to English teachers who have never taught writing because they are intimidated (or too afraid to mark the papers because they themselves are not sure about grammar). That is indicative of the greater problem: teacher preparation is not what it should be in this country, and because of that prospective teachers, students, and current teachers continue to suffer.
Since we are still indeed a nation at risk in terms of education, what can we do to turn things around? There are no easy answers, but someone has to be honest here. It is one thing to say a child is going to learn; it is another thing to get him or her to do it. Overwhelming teachers with standardized tests that are unrealistic, poorly constructed, and yield terrible results is one of the biggest issues. Making teachers drop their normal curriculum to teach to the test is another. Of course, in a world ruled by the test makers, the exception is becoming the rule: teaching to the test has become a normal part of the day in many classrooms.
Teachers want to keep their jobs, so they understand the game, but there is much more at stake than districts being able to gush about their high test scores. High test scores are nothing more than window dressing. You can very likely dig under them and find nothing of substance beneath. This is because in teaching to the test teachers are training students to take that instrument and succeed. This has nothing to do with higher order thinking, with true understanding of concepts, or a lifelong affinity for the learning process. When a teacher is done grinding the students into standardized test robots for one year, they are not going to retain much of anything for next year, which means the rote process of teaching to the specific test has to start all over again. In that type of scenario, when does the real teaching ever get accomplished?
If so many adults are functionally illiterate, there must be a way to stop things and say, “This is criminal and this system is corrupt.” Of course, I am not expecting that to happen today or tomorrow, or maybe even when all the agreements with standardized testing companies expire for these districts. But someone has got to stop the express train to disaster that we are all riding on right now. We will never stop being a nation at risk until people like the president and many others shake the education system to its core. The best thing we can do is try to find time to teach instead of trying to find time to test.
We need to stop beating teachers into becoming slaves to the test scores, and we need students to be opened up to a wide range of possibilities beyond assessments. As a teacher I always loved teaching the subject; I never enjoyed sitting there and watching students take tests. We need to move away from that testing obsession and move toward multiple types of assessment that extend over weeks, months, or even whole semesters. We need to get back to grammar, punctuation, and spelling. We need to teach phonics and math and art and music and science, and then after all that the kids need to get on their gym clothes and run and play and compete on the field.
I have so much hope for American education because I know at the heart of this whole thing are the good teachers, the ones who want to make a difference. That’s why any of us went into teaching in the first place. It was because we cared and we thought that the way to help the bigger picture was to smart small, in the classroom, one child at a time. In fact, that should be the name of Mr. Obama’s new education initiative: One Child at a Time. In that way no one is left behind, everyone will be taught based on individual needs, differentiated instruction will be dynamic and meaningful, and we can move away from worrying about test scores.
Maybe we can one day say, “We are no longer a nation a nation at risk,” but until that time we must do something meaningful about education and it has to be done now, not tomorrow or next month or next year. Now is the time, and the proverbial clock is ticking.