Skeptics, cynics and the state of education

Another flurry of public statements and discussion was triggered by the recent release of the results of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), and once again the people most responsible for the level of academic achievement in our public schools remained largely unmentioned.

Instead, we were treated to the usual litany of explanations for the depressingly low level of student achievement evidenced by the WASL.

Young children entering our schools aren’t “ready to learn,” say some, but they don’t say what that means.

What do the professional educators believe is needed for a child to be deemed ready to learn?

If parents aren’t told what skills, knowledge, and behavioral traits their children need to be ready to learn, how do the professional educators expect them to do things differently?

A cynic might suspect that the professional educators don’t have any specific ideas about what they mean by the phrase “ready to learn,” but they use it anyway to shift blame from their own institutions to the parents.

A skeptic might simply wonder why the academic achievement of the youngest children who take the WASL is usually better than the results attained by children who have been in the public school system longer.

Did some of the students lose their readiness to learn somewhere along the way as they moved up from fourth to seventh grade?

Whatever their shortcomings when the children enter the system, the professional educators assert that insufficient money is spent on public schools; but they don’t say how much would be enough.

The Washington Education Association released its “What Will It Take?” report, which was met with a deservedly low-key response.

Instead of addressing the diverse needs facing schools and school districts, the report used an arbitrary model and extrapolated the needed level of spending without even considering the existence of federal funding for schools.

A cynic might believe that lack of money will always be used as an explanation of poor academic achievement, since such an argument is seemingly never quelled by additional spending and has the effect of shifting blame away from the professional educators’ institutions onto the shoulders of the political leaders and taxpayers.

A skeptic may only wonder why there seems to be no organized statement of the specific requirements that aren’t met by existing funding, and why it seems so rare to hear of a willingness to eliminate less effective programs in favor of those with greater promise.

Another perennial argument from some educators and parents asserts that the WASL has not been shown to be a valid and reliable measure of academic achievement, so this “one test” shouldn’t be used to determine whether students graduate from high school in a few years.

These opponents of the WASL want alternative schools and alternative measurements of academic achievement, but they offer no reason to believe those alternatives are any more valid or reliable than the WASL.

When virtually every poll of employers and university faculty members reveals that high school graduates often depart from high school without learning what they need to succeed in college or the workplace, it seems that we already have seen the results of using alternative methods of assessment — and those results are unacceptable.

A cynic would conclude that the professional educators who complain the loudest about the WASL are the ones who have been expecting the least from their students and have based their assessments of those students’ achievement on those low expectations.

A skeptic may simply wonder what assessment of student achievement could be more valid and reliable than the WASL, which has been developed by professional educators in collaboration with others outside the education establishment.

If our political leaders have the courage to keep the WASL as a graduation requirement for the class of 2008, we may finally reach the point at which the people most responsible for student achievement feel the need to put forth the effort required to learn what the teachers are seeking to teach.

Those people are the students themselves.

All parts of the WASL can be passed by most students, if they apply themselves to the task of learning; but absent a need to pass it, few will be likely to work hard enough.

No teacher can impart knowledge to a child who won’t study hard, because there is no pedagogical method that can make all learning effortless.

The usual arguments and excuses that pop up each time the WASL results are released do nothing to encourage greater student effort, and may even perpetuate the lack of effort which has produced such discouraging results.

The cynic and skeptic both may believe that the Progressives were correct during the past century when they sorted children by ability as early as possible and diverted many students into nonacademic tracks.

We can only hope that the classical liberal ideal of a common education which includes all the knowledge students need to be self-sufficient and productive citizens of a republic will at long last have its day in the sun.

It may take a while for most students to come to the belief that effort is at least as important as ability in achieving academic success, but given enough time we may see that happen.

The alternative shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone, since it involves giving children less than they need and masking their lack of education with meaningless assessments.

Robert Meadows is a

Port Orchard resident.

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