It is broadly (although not universally) accepted that the education of our country’s children is in the public interest. Therefore, I believe that all children should be able to receive some standard of education from their local public school. Unfortunately, too many schools are not performing that duty and vouchers are as good as accepting defeat.
As with most issues, the core of the problem is a lack of honesty and accountability. A recent Walter E. Williams column highlighted a shocking statistic that 77% of Detroit’s 8th graders scored “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. How many of those students were allowed to progress to the next grade level? Almost all of them, I would guess. Williams’ article was about Black Education, but, to varying degrees, this is a problem everywhere.
Passing these students only compounds the problem as most subjects build on prerequisite knowledge. How do you learn algebra if your arithmetic skills are lacking? How do you study grammar when you can’t read fluently? Yet we ignore these failures and shuffle these students along to the next level, setting them up for even more failure. Meanwhile, the next teacher has to hold the rest of the class back so he can re-teach the struggling students.
The blame can be shared by all of the involved parties, including: teachers, who see student performance as a reflection of their teaching and don't want to deal with those same bad students for another academic year; school officials, who need to keep their graduation rates and other statistics looking good; students, who do not value education and just want to get through; parents, some who don't want to subject their kids to the embarrassment of repeating a grade, some who hide behind over-diagnosed learning disabilities and some who don’t think they have any responsibility for their child’s education; taxpayers, who feel they are taxed enough for 13 years of education per student and don’t want to pay for more; the list goes on and the consequences are dire. If this continues, the rest of the world will be exporting their low-paying jobs to the United States.
The solution starts with an honest evaluation of students’ abilities, which requires meaningful testing and strict criteria for grade advancement. Then, establish accountability with a balance of penalties and support systems.
At the end of each school year, students should take entrance exams for each of the next year’s classes to ensure prerequisites have been learned. Allowing the higher level teacher to accept and reject students based on entrance exams prevents the lower level teachers from shuffling students along using lower standards. Those not meeting the next teacher’s standards should be enrolled in summer programs to address specific deficiencies; those that are still not ready should be required to repeat the subject.
Students should also have an accelerated learning track available on a subject by subject basis. This track would give faster learning students the opportunity to either finish early or go farther with a particular subject.
Teachers need to be honestly evaluated, and those with consistently under-performing students should be removed after being given the opportunity to improve. This means getting the teachers unions out of the way, which is admittedly easier said than done.
Administrations should provide resources for struggling teachers such as regional workshops to improve weaknesses like maintaining discipline and dealing with student performance and attitude issues.
The parent issue is a bit tougher. Parents and guardians should be engaged in their child’s education. Unfortunately, there is little recourse for dead-beat parents that doesn’t involve an invasion of privacy, which I cannot support. You can force parents to sign report cards and call them in for parent-teacher conferences, but you can’t go much farther than that. Many schools already provide before and after school programs, subsidized lunches and other resources to help parents and students.
I’m sure many schools have variations of these ideas already in place; but I’d be willing to bet that those schools are not the poor performers. In my lay opinion, instituting these or similar programs would serve our kids a lot better than throwing more money at the problem.