Friday, March 12, 2010

Performance of Public Schools Just Doesn't Add Up

Whenever anyone asks me if 180 days per year in school are enough, I answer by relating my high school experience.  I was required to take American History.  The teacher never got us to World War II.

This sums up my opinion of the public school system, both when I was a prisoner of it and now.  The system is a failure.  I can claim that is a failure because there hasn’t been a definition of a proper education since the one-room schools closed down—the three Rs as it were.

Where did the magical 180 days of classroom instruction come from?  Some folks believe that farm families in the olden days demanded that their children go to school for not more than 180 days because they needed the kids to work the farm in summer.  The 180-day rule has been around so long that other people believe it came from divine guidance.  As in: Noah built the ark, and then it rained for 180 days.

You can teach Algebra in 180 days.  You cannot teach American History in 180 days.  You can teach Civics in 180 days.  You cannot teach American Literature or English Literature in 180 days.  You can teach an introductory course in biology, chemistry or physics in 180 days.  You cannot teach Writing in 180 days. 

Schools have become babysitters.  In addition to providing free day-care, schools provide breakfast and lunch.  Who expects lazy parents to get up an hour early and fix breakfast or pack lunch boxes?

Schools have become sports complexes.  Schools have an obligation to teach physical education and offer daily exercise periods to all students.  But the system has gone way beyond its charge.  The system spends millions of dollars per year to field teams in most sports.  Meanwhile, nearly one-fourth of our students are obese come graduation day.

Schools are inept when it comes to preventing dropouts.  The attitude of school administrators towards dropouts is “so what.”  Administrators don’t want students in school who pull the averages down.  So what if dropouts cost society a fortune later on.

Schools have given up trying to prevent cheating.  Cheating is rampant.  But cheating, via the resulting passing grades, makes school administrators look better in those “No Child Left Behind” reports. 

Schools have given in to grade inflation.  There’s no way that so many students should make the honor roll as they now do.  There’s no way that a school should have several 4.0 GPA graduating seniors all selected as class valedictorians.  Unless, of course, you inject grade inflation into the system. 

When it comes to grade inflation, never forget former Governor Bob Wise and his PROMISE scholarship.  The PROMISE scholarship is a financial entitlement, and West Virginia teachers aren’t going to deny a “C” student that entitlement.  Bob Wise did more to increase the number of “B” students than he’ll ever know.

My heart goes out to mentally challenged students.  But the notion that all children can be mainstreamed in the public schools is a costly fantasy. 

The school system has no clear mission.  Schools are trying to be all things to all people and thus, serve no one well.  If our schools were soup kitchens, the broth would be so thin that it would remind you of Moe, Larry and Curly pouring hot water through a rubber chicken.  Until we define what a student should learn in each year of schooling, then we can’t know whether 180 days of schooling is too much, too little, or just right. 

Given our current assembly of legislators, they will probably fine tune the 180-day rule by mandating that history teachers begin with World War II and then teach American History backwards.  Or in the alternative, they might have teachers skip colonial history altogether and begin with Paul Revere’s ride.

In the past decade, Finland’s public schools have consistently ranked as the best in the world.  Why?  Because Finland has defined a “proper education” for the 21st century, and the schools teach to that standard.

Helsinki is Europe’s snowiest capitol city, averaging 101 snow days each winter.  The difference between Finland and West Virginia is not measured in snow days, however.  The Finns believe that getting an education is their most important endeavor.  As such, their kids will ski to school if they have to. 

In case you were wondering, Finnish students attend school 190 days from mid-August to the end of May.  The school term includes holiday breaks as well as a week-long spring break.