NJ high school juniors receive their HSPA test results this time of year. Most students pass but many do not. There usually is a disparity between urban and suburban districts. This year will probably be no different. We will undoubtedly hear that school and teachers are failing our students. Few, if any, politicians will say students failed. There is an ongoing debate in New Jersey, and around the country, concerning the state of public education. I spent many in years in education from the board of education to the classroom. I have a unique perspective having experience in both policy and teaching positions. The classroom reflects the challenges of society. The classroom does not lead society but mirrors it. When we examine the classroom we examine ourselves. It is easy to point fingers at teachers and schools but in reality the finger needs to be pointed at ourselves.
What do I mean by societies challenges and their reflection in the classroom? Here a few non-comprehensive examples in random order.
The issue of undocumented aliens divides the country. The children of undocumented aliens often end up in our urban high schools. They bring special challenges that are not easily met. Many students have weak English skills. There are many problems in math that require knowledge of subtle differences in words such as “and” vs “or.” Students with weak English skills have difficulty mastering these kinds of problems. I know of cases where the first school a student attended is the high school here in New Jersey. I know of other cases where students are placed in a limited English class and teachers find it difficult to bridge the Spanish / English gap because the student speaks a Spanish dialect and does not understand formal Spanish. The schools and teachers are considered failures when these students do not meet the same standards as someone born and raised here.
The family structure is changing some say in deep decline. Single parent families are growing everywhere especially in the inner city. A school needs to reinforce the family and social structure and values. A student who does not have a support system that sees education as important and demands excellence will not give education the priority it needs. Rare is the geometry student who may pass doing half the class work and none of the homework. The only leverage a teacher has is the grade and any personal relationship they may build. Large class sizes do not allow for the special attention needed by many students in this situation. Schools are handcuffed by bureaucracy that sees discipline as the enemy of education not the friend it is. The lack of self motivation, self respect and self discipline is difficult, if not impossible, to change when the only leverage a school has is the grade it gives a student. A student not motivated by grades cannot be moved by this leverage. Schools need the ability to demand the best of their students regardless of what that is and to apply significant ramifications to combat negative behaviors.
I posted two examples of 1880/90s exams. One is a middle school exam and the other is a high school admissions exam. These students did not have electric lights, calculators or even a ball point pen, yet they mastered these skills. The methods used to teach students in the 1860s are not used today. Too many students get to high school not having mastered fractions. They usually have not internalized the multiplication tables. Many topics in algebra require this and students without these skills are at a disadvantage. Current teaching methods do not require the memorization of basic math facts such as the multiplication table. They learn through discovery methods. This is like trying to learn the sounds of letters through reading yet you cannot read without knowledge of the sounds of letters.
I write this not to excuse poor teachers or poor schools. I write this to illustrate how current methods of evaluation ensure lower scores for inner city schools. A better evaluation method would be base-lining students knowledge at the beginning of high school and measuring what they know at the end of four years to see how they progressed. The current method of assuming any failure to achieve a specific result is the failure of the teachers or schools when no one is accounting for the different starting points serves no one. It is like using a speedometer that does not start from zero. It needs adjustment before providing an accurate speed. The unique problems of urban schools need measurement adjustments to determine the value of the education received. Students need to be held accountable for their responsibilities. A culture placing a high value on education needs to exist.
Comments from politicians concerning the failure of schools and teachers (never students) hopefully will be seen from a new perspective. Schools reflect society. The troubles and declining societal norms are reflected in the schools. School failures are the symptoms not the cause of a declining society.