Recently, the bad news was that the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 38% of our students scored proficient or higher in reading, and 26% did so in math. That day’s good news revealed that scores were level with performance in 2009, letting us proudly proclaim — we’re not worse!
But the celebration was short lived. Teachers in the Philadelphia school system followed the corrupt practice of their “professional” co-workers from Atlanta. They juiced the standardized tests of their students by correcting wrong answers, by giving students the correct answers, and by improperly reviewing test questions in advance.
Where such cheating was halted at a Philadelphia middle school, 5th grade student scores dropped from 50% proficient on reading to 16% proficient, and on math from 62% proficient to 22%. Doubtless, some teachers’ apologists will redistribute blame for these crimes, citing the usual educator excuses — “pay for performance,” too much testing, or the favorite cop-out, “inadequate funding.”
The Philadelphia and Atlanta teachers’ behavior sends a loud insult to the children and their parents. Taxpayers thought they were funding genuine education at the school, not just another unionized scam. With luck, Pennsylvania prosecutors will repay the teachers’ crimes with prison time without interruption from those pesky standardized tests.
Fortunately there are better educators and movements than the criminal cabal in Philadelphia. There is hope for progress. Home schooling all but guarantees that children get attention and guidance at a suitable pace. That shows in their comparatively high achievements. Charter schools have become a reliably superior alternative to public schools in urban areas. Websites such as The Khan Academy are excellent sources of math and science curriculum that are often used by competent teachers – including those in public schools. States such as South Carolina provide excellent online curriculum that can even be used in lieu of attendance at a public school. Curriculum doesn’t have to be invented from scratch by local school administrators and teachers who didn’t earn a doctorate in the relevant academic subject.
Within K-12 education there are factors which may eventually become a positive for students. The Common Core curriculum probably delivers needed standardization in math and reading. Unfortunately, Common Core has been misunderstood, misrepresented and scapegoated for the ill-concocted homework assignments from local teachers and school administrators, and for hurt feelings over states-rights issues. Would New Jersey math really differ from North Carolina math? Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are being sanded and polished at the university level, but they will soon enrich the curriculum for K-12 students. There is a federal movement to check that colleges of education graduates have the skills needed to be effective teachers. This will result in needed arguments over what role the teacher actually plays in student learning. Many of these evolving educational tools could help children.
There are also some vexing items holding back K-12 progress. Not enough parents provide reading materials and encourage reading before their child enters K-12. Schools should not be burdened with fixing parents’ sloth. In some locations, teacher tenure is too quickly obtained and it protects bad teachers from being removed from the classroom without inordinate litigation. Some school systems grossly underpay teachers because they don’t focus on rewarding the most effective teachers.
Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research