So Jack Buckley is “heartened.” That says a lot.
Mr. Buckley, commissioner of the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, was pleased by the results of the 2013 “National Assessment of Educational Progress,” which showed that 35 percent of U.S. students were proficient in math and 37 percent in reading. The exams, given to 342,000 eighth-graders in public and private schools nationwide, also showed a substantial gap between white and various minority students.
This gap is of great concern to Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of State School Officers, who bemoaned the “kids that are left behind,” blaming their poor performance on bad instruction and the fact that “they aren’t given the same expectations as other kids … ” Which also says a lot.
Sorry, 37 percent of eighth-graders being “proficient” in reading is not cause for celebration, it’s a catastrophe of enormous proportions. In 1960, approximately 97.2 percent of adult Americans were functionally literate, translating into the ability to read and comprehend a newspaper written at the eighth-grade level. With 50 years of additional work and a river of money, slightly more than a third of today’s eighth-graders are in the same zone. After trillions of dollars, after 50 years of “innovations,” after a half-century of hand-wringing, after experimentation, after high-stakes testing and “grouping” and changes both physical and psychological, the time has come to admit that what we have done has failed. Johnny still can’t read.
Perhaps it’s time to take a new tack. Perhaps it’s time to admit that it’s not the school’s fault; that teachers are not to blame; that poor academic performance cannot be lain at the feet of public parsimony or bad management. Perhaps we should return to the paradigm used when we were one of the most literate and numerate, one of the best-educated nations on earth: if you are ignorant, it’s your fault, not someone else’s. And that ignorance is not a point of pride, it’s shameful.
I can hear the screams from here, as supposedly concerned parents plead special circumstances for their particular Johnny or Jane, addled by years of parental indulgence or indifference — the mechanisms are dissimilar, the results identical; nonstop television and games, each designed to appeal to a viewer or participant with the attention span of a gnat; and perhaps years of drugs to combat the ensuing attention deficit disorders. They are right: poor performance is not entirely the child’s fault. Parents share the blame, and the shame. Which is the crux of the problem. In former days, people feared failure. It was bad; it marked you. It was, yes, shameful. So people moved heaven and earth to avoid it. But in our society, shame is a vanishingly small motivation. Failure never happens. Or if it does befall anyone, from the president to my grandchildren, it’s someone else’s fault. Pick a scapegoat: overcrowded classes. Bad teachers. Incompetent administrators. Politicians with their high-stakes testing. Tightfisted, stupid voters (popular these days … ). The Tea Party (ditto).
It’s all excuses for the inexcusable, and until we grasp that fact, we’re going nowhere.
Which means we’re going nowhere. We — especially members of our political class and their educrat allies — don’t like the prospect of the unpleasant, difficult work that would really be involved in raising academic performance. That would require sustained, long-term effort, because profound social change would be required to address this problem. So we ignore it instead. Call it the Jack Buckley solution.
For centuries, a good education was the golden ticket in America. It opened doors, gave those who possessed it a leg up, a better job, more opportunities, higher pay. It still does all of those things, but when the downside of being illiterate and unemployable is not ruinous poverty and starvation but rather a situation that would be the envy of many considered lower-middle-class in much of the rest of the world, there is not as much reason to sacrifice time and energy to achieve that basic level of education. Many find other outlets instead.
To solve our problem of low performance would require returning to an earlier, simpler, more demanding — and more successful — time. Educational funding would be spent in the classroom, not on administrators. Standards would be made fewer, more rigorous, and strictly enforced. Nonperformance would result in failure. And dropouts would face destitution. None of this will happen, of course. Not as long as the “government is here to take care of you and your fragile ego” crowd is in control.
And that’s a shame.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County.