In a presidential election year, both candidates constantly swear to “reform” our education system. Of course this presupposes the “system”–every single school in America–needs “reform,” and all agree on just what such “reform” entails. Democrats always demand maximum federal government involvement and control, heavily laced with protections for teacher’s unions. In other words, the kind of brilliant, visionary policies that have reduced inner city schools across the nation to smoldering piles of intellectual rubble. On the other hand, Republicans, more and more, are arguing for the same approach, minus, perhaps, the unions, though they tend to do it in the guise of “accountability” through testing, which amounts to the same federal control–and inevitable destruction.
The idea that every school in America is so incompetent it must be “reformed,” is abject nonsense. The idea that most are so incompetent is equally absurd. Most American schools do quite well. But the idea that many, perhaps most schools in many big cities are not doing their jobs is almost certainly true. But both assumptions are just that: assumptions. There is no easy way to determine such things, which is why local control is so important, but more on this shortly.
One of the primary statistics generators politicians use to provide seemingly authoritative information on education is standardized test scores. This is, in part, why politicians and educrats are so enamored of high stakes mandatory testing. It provides data points they can use to justify not only their continuing high-paying jobs, data can be used to justify whatever they’re selling at the moment. A common provider of such data, the ACT test, illustrates the point. Via Inside Higher Education:
Average ACT scores are down this year. ACT officials attribute the drop to the increasing percentage of high school seniors who have taken the test.
The average composite score for those who graduated from high school this year was 20.8, down 0.2 points from last year and representing a five-year low. (The highest possible score on each part of the ACT is 36, and the composite is an average of the four scores.)
ACT data show that 64 percent of high school seniors in the Class of 2016 took the ACT this year, up from 59 percent last year and 52 percent in 2012. Generally, when a larger share of students take a test — in some cases encouraged by state requirements more than the students necessarily being college ready — scores go down. Score drops were the largest in states that have just started to require all students to take the ACT.
ACT has benchmarks for predicting college success for each section of the test. These too are showing declines.
The idea that more people taking the ACT equals declining scores almost makes sense, until one runs up against the fog of politics. Under Barack Obama, the idea that every high school student in America should attend college, and their tuition should be provided by the public, has driven policy, forcing states to implement mandatory “college readiness” programs, and encouraged colleges to admit anyone with a measurable pulse whose tuition checks will clear the bank. Yet, even that is not a disqualifier, because the federal government has taken over the student loan industry, and is more than happy to burden kids that will never graduate from college with huge college debt they have neither the credentials nor ability to pay off. This is known as “progress.,” and Hillary Clinton wants to take this kind of progress ever farther than Barack Obama.
Tests like the ACT and SAT have traditionally been mere indicators of potential academic success in genuinely college level programs. When there are more non-traditional students, their predictive value declines. When everyone, not just students who self-select due to their high academic abilities and desire to earn a college degree, takes the test, of course the overall scores will go down.
Such exercises in reason do not, for a moment, stop politicians and educrats from blaming teachers and schools for declining ACT and other standardized test scores. But back to the article:
This year, 38 percent of test takers met the benchmarks in at least three of the four subject areas tested (English, math, reading and science), which according to ACT shows that they have “strong readiness for college course work.” That’s down from 40 percent in 2015. The percentage of test takers who did not meet any of the benchmarks increased to 34 percent from 31 percent.
Many educators have worried about the lingering (and in some cases growing) gaps among different racial and ethnic groups on the ACT and also on the SAT…
In the last five years, only the ACT scores of Asian-Americans (on average) have improved, while other groups have remained level or dropped. The average scores of Asian-American test takers are higher than those of all other groups on each of the four parts of the ACT.
What?! Why this might suggest that there is an individual, even a cultural, component to test scores. Students might actually bear some responsibility for their grades, which include ACT scores. And kids from certain cultures where academic achievement is highly valued might actually experience greater academic achievement than members of other cultures. Imagine that.
But here, politics again raises its ugly head. Particularly in inner city schools with large minority–particularly black–populations, politicians are loath to bring up such obvious racial disparities. Telling the truth about them runs counter to cherished progressive narratives, and implementing the genuine reforms necessary to change things alienates unions and tends to reduce absolute dependency on government, which makes it more likely blacks might actually vote for Republicans! So academically oriented black kids find themselves continually fighting an upstream battle against accusations of “acting white,” by demonstrating their intelligence rather than immersing themselves in the surrounding government dependency/thug culture.
The truth is simple, which makes it unacceptable for most politicians and not a few educrats: all teachers can do, even the best teachers in the world, is provide the best educational opportunity their abilities and resources make possible for their students.
But what about schools? Schools are merely buildings where teachers work. They are communities of educators, and if properly led by principals that see their job as ensuring they hire the best possible teachers, and ensuring those teachers have all they need to provide that educational opportunity, they can potentially be very effective indeed.
What do I mean “potentially?” The rest is up to the kids and their parents. Schools are liable, “accountable,” in the current jargon, for providing the best educational opportunity possible. If kids, and their parents, do not take advantage of that opportunity, teacher/school accountability is at an end. I do not educate any individual students; they educate themselves. For me to provide the necessary guidance and practice, kids must be willing to accept the guidance and do that practice. Only then is learning possible.
This is why local control is so vital. The closer people are to an issue, the more likely they are to take pride in seeing it done right. A politician they can address across their backyard fence is more likely to be responsive, and to understand the actual, rather than political, problems of a given school. Everyone is far more likely to know what’s necessary and how to accomplish it, and they have the motivation to do it because their own children are directly involved in their ability to solve problems.
There is no doubt that at some inner city schools, commonly charter schools where principals and teachers have the freedom to ignore counter-productive regulations and idiotic educational theories and fads, academically oriented students, even minority students, take advantage of their opportunities and excel, proving the point.
And this brings us full circle to the ACT. Test scores are determined by determination, by kids interested in learning and willing and able to take advantage of their educational opportunities. Throw the uninterested, uninvolved, lazy, and disruptive into the mix, and test scores, and academic achievement in general, decline.
Who could have possibly foreseen that? Pretty much every competent American teacher, but nobody listens to them.