HOW DO WE RAISE ACADEMIC STANDARDS?

6/14/07

            When teachers talk about raising academic standards, lay-people immediately think about students being called upon to do more work.  Yet, thatís not what I mean when I talk about elevating our expectations for the children in our schools. Young students today are on average being asked to learn more age-inappropriate content, are doing more hours of growth-stunting homework and are made to feel the necessity of attending various after-school tutorial programs to gain a competitive edge on their peers.   Yet, most would agree that the academic standards of too many public schools have been in decline for some time.  Most of the major newspapers recently reported the results of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test rightly or wrongly dubbed Americaís report card.   Comparing 2005ís twelfth-gradersí reading results to those who took the same test  in 1992, todayís high school seniors did poorer, even though they had much higher grade point averages than the senior class of 1992.  The ineluctable conclusion is that standards have declined, despite an explosion of programs that have students spending more time doing school.  Whatís going on?  

            A public k-12 education ought to be focused on ensuring that each generation of young people is equipped with self-discipline, the intellectual skills and knowledge necessary to be a productive member of a society that increasingly produces information rather than things and an understanding of and a commitment to our democratic institutions.  Although that goal can be expressed in one English sentence, achieving it requires the committed energy and talent of teachers and the support of parents and the education bureaucracy.   Our focus has tended to be elsewhere, on everything from self-actualization to college admission, not on learning.  

            The authority of teachers to discipline children has been seriously eroded.  Until it is restored, any efforts to raise academic standards will be frustrated.  More and more teachers in our district are turning to their union leaders in desperation for help in dealing with students who increasingly come to school not knowing that adults must be addressed differently than other children, not prepared to subordinate their individual urges and desires to the demands of group activities and generally unwilling to take the directions given to them.  It is no exaggeration to say that we have little children in our schools who strike fear in the hearts of their teachers, teachers who too often feel powerless to correct them because they know that a studentís misbehavior has a way of ultimately being blamed on the teacher.  It has become more commonplace than may be imagined for a student sent to the office for some infraction to call her parent on her cell phone who in turn calls the principal to make a complaint about the teacher first.  In a matter of seconds, the teacher is playing defense.   

            The saddest part of this lack of discipline is that it is often paralleled at home.  What adults need to remember is that children often understand the failure of adults to correct them as a sign of adult indifference rather than love and caring.  Such students have a tendency to escalate their misbehavior in a desperate attempt to force adults to pay attention to them.   When adults fail to let children know their place in their world, when they fail to set appropriate limits on their behavior, they often bring about a much more profound unhappiness in children than comes from the temporary unhappiness of being corrected and disciplined.  Undisciplined children are unequipped for school.  Itís just that simple.  Raising academic standards, therefore, must mean raising our expectations of student behavior.  

            Itís become a clichť in our work to talk about our curriculum being a mile wide and an inch deep.  The metaphor may be worn out, but itís still true.  Teacher and parents are often heard to complain about the basic things that children donít seem to know.  Yet, the same middle-schooler who canít sequence tenses in English can often parrot back the stages of mitosis or some arcane fact about Botswana .  In Plainview-Old Bethpage, we recently learned just how tentative knowledge of basic math facts is among our students.  Somehow or other, our students were being asked to think deeply about mathematics and seem to have passed over things like six times nine.  We appear to have lost sight of the fact that becoming a literate, reflective human being equipped with the skills to continue oneís learning either formally or on oneís own requires the slow, methodical work of teachers who know that the intellectual tools of learning are acquired through imaginatively guided repetitions of increasing difficulty and complexity, teachers who are empowered to encourage and sometimes demand that students perform to the best of their ability, teachers who are free to fairly evaluate their students and correct their work. It takes a school environment that has learning as its primary objective, not the ritualistic cultivation of self-esteem.  It requires a school culture in which itís acceptable to be smart and to know things, a school culture that promotes age-appropriate learning not resume building, a school culture that recognizes that some people are more intellectually able than others and provides all students educational opportunities appropriate to their abilities.   To educate students well demands that parents support the efforts of teachers and not second guess their every decision.  We need parents who oppose grade inflation and who support efforts to make sure that student grades reflect real accomplishment.   

            The Plainview-Old Bethpage Schools have had the temerity to answer the call of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers to take an open-minded look at our academic standards, a remarkable event in and of itself.  A committee of teachers, parents and administrators began that discussion which has now moved out to the schools and the parent community.  The three newly elected members of our Board of Education talked during their campaigns about the need to elevate the district's academic standards.  Each was elected by a large margin.  The stars seem to be aligned for us to move forward to build a consensus on exactly what we mean by raising academic standards and how we go about doing it.  If that is so, and I believe deeply that it is, next year and those to come will be exciting and rewarding for our school community.

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