Education – we can do better

“In 100 years, we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college.” — Joseph Sobran

A former Marine Corps Drill Sergeant took a job as a teacher. Just before the school year started he injured his back and had to wear an upper body cast under his shirt. Assigned to the toughest students in the school, the sergeant walked into the classroom, opened the window and sat down at his desk. When a strong breeze made his tie flap, he picked up a stapler and stapled the tie to his chest.

There was dead silence. He had no trouble with discipline that year.

Which leads us, albeit indirectly, to our schools. A website from the NH Department of Education, my.doe.nh.gov/profiles, has a wealth of data about individual schools, a school district, or the entire state.

I have been looking at the statewide data but similar data is available for individual schools or school districts such as my town of Sunapee, or Claremont, or the Kearsarge Regional School District. What really caught my eye is the student assessments. The 11th grade numbers are particularly disappointing – only 37% are proficient in math; only 40% are proficient in writing. To put it bluntly, three-fifths of our kids are illiterate.

We can and should do better. There are schools in NH and in other states that score higher. We could learn from those schools. Heck, we probably could do better just by listening to our own school’s teachers. I can’t help thinking that some of our problems are due to bad dictates from our state’s Department of Education.

I have talked with some parents and teachers. One comment I heard more than once is that we set the bar too low. One NH school sets the bar so low that two-thirds of the kids are on the honor roll. Some public school teachers send their own kids to private school to be challenged by higher standards. When faced with difficult challenges most kids can accomplish amazing things.

Marva Collins demonstrated that fact when she started a school in inner-city Chicago. Marva took in learning-disabled, problem children and even one child who had been labeled by Chicago public school authorities as borderline retarded. At the end of the first year, every child scored at least FIVE grades higher. The “borderline retarded” girl went on to graduate from college Summa Cum Laude. Mrs. Collins’ curriculum is based on classical literature, including Aesop’s Fables and works by William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, and even Plato – in 3rd and 4th grades.

Equally amazing is an Alabama family with 10 kids, all entering college by age 12. The first became the youngest graduate ever of Auburn University. Another is on her way to become one of the youngest physicians in American history. A sister became a licensed architect by age 18. One of the boys will complete his masters in Computer Science just after his 17th birthday. The parents aren’t brilliant people. All they did was find out what their kids really enjoyed, and then encourage them to follow their passions. They never pushed their kids to get straight “A”s but just to “have a fun day.” These parents “are convinced that all children have the capacity to learn at the rate theirs have.”

Those two parents and Marva Collins were confident that kids could learn quickly and well when given challenging materials. Internationally, most other countries demand more from their kids and those kids achieve more. High expectations lead to high results. I would very much like to hear from more teachers and parents. Is it just a few, or many, or most of them who think that we should set higher standards?

Which brings us to Common Core Standards. It is touted as setting higher standards but some experts say it actually sets lower standards. The people who developed Common Core had little to no previous experience writing standards. The two most experienced members, Sandra Stotsky and James Milgram, refused to sign off on the new standards and are now actively opposing them.

How is Common Core working out in the real world? The simple fact is that it was never tested in the real world. That is why one Manchester, NH parent complained “Why are you experimenting with my kids? Please don’t tell me this isn’t experimental when my middle school daughter comes home crying because she failed a math quiz because she got the correct answers using the outdated method she was taught last year. This parent respectfully and passionately asks this board to stop experimenting on his kids.”

A mother wrote, “My ten year old daughter asked me what it would take for me to let her stay home from school forever. Forever. Not tomorrow, not this week. Forever. … these Common Core standards … are hurting children, causing them to give up on themselves at ten years old.”

And from a teacher: “Children are drowning in school anxiety, families find their evenings descending into a sea of tears, and the usual joy of school and all it should entail has been vanished … because the “great minds” behind Common Core can’t craft clear homework directions, select age-appropriate curriculum or resist the urge to burden kids with high-stakes testing at every turn.”

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