TALKING ABOUT STANDARDS

2/28/07  

            “Test Scores at Odds With Rising High School Grades” the Washington Post ( 2/22/07 ) recently announced.  Reading on, we learn that America ’s high school seniors did not do as well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than their counterparts of a decade ago.  To anyone who spent the last ten years in public schools, the only surprise in the article is that it required test data to demonstrate what has been obvious to anyone who cared to look.  For all of the talk about standards based education, for all of the assembled data that states report to show that schools are improving significantly, the simple fact is that academic standards in most places have very palpably declined, and, as the teaching staff turns over, it will soon be the case that almost no one teaching in America’s public schools will have any recollection of what students were once able and expected to do.  

            While the NAEP data will no doubt set off a new round of teeth gnashing over the deplorable condition of our nation’s schools, the reality is that to a considerable extent the public has gotten precisely the schools it has wanted, at least that portion of the public residing in suburban America .  Take Plainview-Old Bethpage, for example.  It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that giving students the grades they deserve can be tantamount to an act of courage in communities like ours, so out of the norm that many would suggest that insanity would be a better word to describe what has become to too many teachers almost unthinkable.  To hold students to the standards their parents were held to is to court a reputation for being rigid and unconcerned for the feelings of one’s students, a teacher to be avoided at all costs, up to and including exerting whatever political pressure parents can muster to place their children with more accommodating instructors.   Poised to put an ‘F’ on an almost incoherent paper, many teachers pause to anticipate the phone call that begins with, “I was so disappointed with my child’s grade.  I really thought his paper was worth much more.”  The situation has gotten so out of hand in some places that the same story in the Post reports that Silver Spring Md. statistics teacher Julie Greenberg has been moved to keep two grade books, one for the grades her students deserve and another for those that she will put on their report cards.  

            For years, my union colleagues and I have been trying to awaken our school community to our version of the insidious grade inflation affecting our nation’s schools and the resulting decline of academic standards.  That effort has been challenging to say the least.  At times, some, including, I realize some members of our union, felt we were the enemies of the people.  Life for parents, teachers, superintendents of schools and board of education members is just simpler when all is well in a school district.  Nobody really relishes having to face the fact that we have all been responsible for the decline of standards – every teacher who has given an undeserved grade, every administrator who has asked a teacher to “reconsider” a mark, every parent who has called to hector an instructor until he relents and raises a child’s grade, every member of a board of education who has used her office to “deliver” higher grades to a constituent, every union leader who makes one excuse or another for the poor performance of too many of our students.  They have all done their part to cheapen the extraordinarily important work of our public schools.  They have all lowered the bar for the children we are supposed to prepare for work and citizenship.

            Yet, I’m very pleased to write about the hope that I still have that we can reverse this decline.  At the instigation of the PCT and with the cooperation of our superintendent of schools, our Board of Education authorized the formation of an Academic Standards Committee to look into our view that standards have declined.  Composed of teachers, parents and administrators, the committee on which I sit has grappled for almost two years with this question, coming to the unanimous conclusion that our students, though as intellectually capable as ever, are not challenged as they once were.  We have further agreed to undertake to build support among all school community constituencies to elevate the level of our instruction and academic expectations.  Starting next week, Superintendent Marty Brooks and I will be speaking to the faculty of each school in our district to launch the district’s campaign to raise its standards.  

            No doubt, this will not be an easy job.  The status quo will exert its almost gravitational pull downward.  In the end, however, I have an abiding belief that most people prefer excellence to mediocrity, and, while striving for excellence may bring with it  considerable discomfort, it is nothing like the discomfort of knowing that we are second rate because of our own inaction.  

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