Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Schools cope with 'forced mediocrity'

This piece was originally published in the News & Record on February 21, 2007.

After an early childhood of private schooling, I entered public school in fifth grade at Bluford Elementary which, coincidentally, was the single year Mark Moore taught what was then called the AG, or academically gifted, program there.

While I learned many facts and figures from Mr. Moore, the most important lessons I learned were related to critical thinking, a skill that, according to a recent survey, is in short supply.

The survey was conducted over the course of 2006 by an alliance of business research and advocacy groups who set out to discover the skill set corporate America values in new hires and whether American students possess those skills. Four hundred American employers responded that while basic skills, such as reading, writing and math, are essential for job readiness, applied skills, such as critical thinking, are vastly more important.

Unfortunately, 69.9 percent of employer respondents said recent high school graduates lack applied skills, statistics made all the more alarming by the fact that these are among the first students to graduate under No Child Left Behind. According to the NCLB Web site, the program was enacted in order to, “ensure that all children receive a high quality education so that no child is left behind.”

Perhaps it’s mincing words, but if the majority of American high school students are ill prepared for jobs with earnings growth potential, are we keeping some children from being “left behind” by lowering the educational standards for all?

Though it has been nearly two decades since I lucked into Mr. Moore’s class, he was more than willing to shed some light on this tricky issue.

“Something had to be done,” Mr. Moore said recently, citing the all-to-common occurrence of valueless materials in pre-NCLB classrooms. “But it’s almost like they saw a mosquito on the wall; here’s a flyswatter and here’s a Howitzer cannon. Let’s use the Howitzer and let’s just destroy the wall.”

Every parent of a school-aged child has seen what replaced the wall: exam-lead lesson plans covering math and English almost exclusively and testing during which educators around the country have reported kids vomiting from stress.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Mr. Moore, “kids need reading and math. But you’ve got to throw something else in there to make them want to do it.”

In my fifth grade class, “something else” included lessons on earth science coupled with environmental activism, physics with model rockets, world history with my first understanding of the word “irony” (a la destroying a village to save it). I left fifth grade with the tools for critical thinking and an unquenchable thirst for learning.

Perhaps proponents of NCLB believe that students can find their own way to critical thinking so long as public education leaves them proficient in the “three R’s”. Unfortunately, 42.2 percent of employers surveyed said that high school graduates were deficient in even these NCLB-intensive areas.

Meanwhile, private schools, unbeholden to the funding-cut threats of NCLB, continue to provide their students with-rounded educations. Is it so outlandish to imagine a future in which these educational disparities become earning disparities? Is it alarmist to suggest that kids educated under NCLB would see education as a source of valueless stress and therefore settle for a high school diploma?

Mr. Moore refers to education under NCLB as “forced mediocrity,” in which test scores are more important that true comprehension, challenging advanced students or captivating poorer students. Meanwhile, the opportunity to not only to prepare students for a working adulthood but also to instill in them a love of learning is passing us by.


Roch101 said...

Mark Moore. That name consistently pops up in conversations about good things in local public education.

David Boyd said...

Hmmm. Government screwing up education. AG kids not being challenged. Gifted local teachers know best. Sounds like you're about ready to climb aboard the Voucher Train, SBJ.

Sarah Beth Jones said...


After my conversation with Mark Moore, I'm not sure what train I'm on or even if I'm at the station. I've always been a big advocate for public school but now it really seems like publicly educated kids are at a serious disadvantage. I don't have kids, but if I did, it would be hard to keep them in this system...

Roch - the older I get, the more appreciative I am to have had him for a teacher - the guy is unreal.