If They Haven’t Learned…                



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Picture 10-year-old Johnny, his masculinity threatened on every level, his mental and physical energy denied expression, his home life hectic and unsupportive, his continued inability to read becoming more debilitating every year, and his boredom level has climbed off any available chart. Imagine being him. And yet, we know that his disadvantages will not be met in 5th grade any more than they were in 1st. We know – looking at the recent educational studies – that in seven years, he will graduate, in much the same condition -- if he graduates at all. Given the odd assumption that graduation proves effective education, and the pressure schools are under to up graduation numbers, he probably will walk away with a diploma, but it will be a meaningless one.

We know that the graduation rate and the proficiency levels no longer correlate at all.  Over 80% of our high school seniors “earn” diplomas, but only 37% of them can read at grade level. Only 25% of them can do math at grade level. And yet our schools are more concerned about programming young people for sexual deviancy and multicultural hatred of their own country than they are in turning out thinking, informed, skilled adults. 

So why can’t our schools fix this problem? There are many answers – teachers’ unions, left-leaning educational institutions, leftist textbooks, etc. But our schools are filled with wonderful teachers working appalling hours and wanting desperately to see their students learn. So what is in their way? How is it these kids can get all the way through 13 years of schooling and know nothing? 

Look back at Johnny. In first grade he didn’t learn to read, but what happened to him? He went on to 2nd grade where he had even less opportunity to figure it out. But did he stay in 2nd grade or a remedial class until he caught on? No. On to 3rd where his dismal scores on standardized tests demonstrate clearly his inabilities, but still nothing will be done.

One year during my tenure as a high school English teacher we were required to attend evening classes instructing us in how to teach our students to read – in addition to everything else we were supposed to be inculcating. The lessons in these classes were all geared to 3rd grade, which bothered us all – if this approach didn’t work when these kids were 8-year-olds, why would it work when they’re 17? I asked about the viability of this approach for high school and the instructor admitted that they had no idea how to rescue a teenager who had never mastered reading. 

Fifty years ago schools quit holding Johnny back a grade when he didn’t reach the set standards. Administrators deemed it too rough on his ego to admit his problem and fix it. We would damage his self-esteem and we heard over and over again that the self-esteem deficit would render any increase in skill null and void. No one ever proved that, but say something often enough and it becomes gospel. No one considered what damage Johnny’s ego would sustain in high school when reading and writing and computing skills were both assumed and necessary. 

Once the schools cannot hold kids back because they haven’t mastered reading and math then subsequent teachers are under pressure – political, professional, and pragmatic – to keep the momentum going. 

Some dumbing down has to happen if a teacher has a classroom full of students who are below grade level. There is nothing to be gained by failing them all. And as teachers, we are taught to meet our students where they actually are. That is good pedagogy. 

However, if an instructor’s students don’t meet the standard, the teacher gets in trouble, the students become demoralized, and the parents get angry. Angry parents make for nervous and defensive administrators who, in turn, pressure the teachers into – what?  Passing the students whether they’ve cleared the hurdles, or not. 

This continues until high school when the problem just blows up. Unless the district chooses to do what my district did – we “raised the bar.” You’ve got to love educational jargon.  We did this by -- 1. Cutting out the “D” as a grade option – which, of course, merely inflated the grades. 

2. Demanding students turn in ALL assignments. I know, this doesn’t seem out of line, but most students miss an assignment now and then, and no one could see that a do-or-die turn-in policy only erased the ability to insist on due dates. We couldn’t legally fail a kid for being late on an assignment. One of my students said to me one day, “Ah due dates, schmoo dates.” Kids were turning in papers that were months late and we had to accept them. 

3. Forcing kids into honors level classes whether they were capable or not.  And then when too many began failing, the administration demanded that teachers dumb down the curricula. Then the following year, students were assigned to the next level up and they weren’t ready to do the work because the previous curricula had been so simplified.  That was “raising the bar.” 

Then these kids go off to college and the colleges face the same problems. I’d like very much to increase the rigor of the college classes I teach – in spite of the fact that transfer students find my classes much more rigorous than their state junior college classes have been. But if I really expected kids to actually function at what we used to call “college” level, they’d fail. It’s mind boggling, and frustrating, and knowing where it came from is not much help. 

It’s not like we don’t know what can be done about it. In the last couple of decades brain research has taught us quite a bit about how the brain learns. We know that that the more background knowledge a child has, the better reader he will be– yet we spend most of the school day drilling kids on “reading skills” rather than teaching them anything factual. We know that movement plays a big role in brain development, yet we cut back on recess. We know music and art improve brain function, but we cut art.

We must remember that the original purpose of John Dewey’s educational scheme never was to produce thinking, critical, knowledgeable human beings. It was to create drones. And we have succeeded in that. 

Plus, the society in general discourages facing ugly truths and makes pretending fairly easy for a long period of time, but here in 2018 it’s clear that the make-believe fairy tale is over. Millennials are finding that they are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and yet they know little that is actually true. They have learned attitudes, but not facts. We’ve hit that wall. 

So what does public education do? Nothing. I’ve been involved, either willingly or otherwise, in half a dozen educational reforms designed to fix our problems. They all fail. The solution lies outside the auspices of government and teachers unions. The responsibility for educating our young has to start with the family. It can easily blossom into private enterprise, charter schools, school vouchers. The homeschooling industry is thriving and so are the students educated at home. 

For the last nine years I’ve been involved in building a school, a Bible-based junior college. Accreditation took us that long, and raising money isn’t easy, but it can be done. We can crawl out from under the crushing weight of a system devoid of reality. We just have to begin.