Solving the “Solution”

A student tackling education reform in America.

In 2002, the Bush administration enacted legislation on the No Child Left Behind program. It was greeted with a rounding of applause and left a collection of federal employees feeling good about their work. This grew out from the idea that kids couldn’t ever be left behind with the incessant monitoring of standardized testing; that through the use of didactic, mandated testing, failing children could be observed and ultimately pushed to succeed.

There’s just one problem with that.
It doesn’t work.

Testing has done a few things to our kids, and little of it has to do with improving grades. Our kids are now being raised with short-sighted mindsets; many are prepping for big exams and very little are studying for a long-term reason beyond the tests. Common Core has provided a cram mentality, where these kids are pushed to succeed by federal standards of testing. And that wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for one thing: the only way we are measuring their success is by testing, and testing alone.

There is very little in the way of “helping” a failing student beyond raising test scores because of the very way we look at the system. Goal-oriented standards, in which we determine success and quality by measuring whether a student gets something correct, does not reinforce the skills necessary in the larger workforce today. There is a reason why our nation’s best colleges require essay after essay, and sometimes interview after interview of their potential applicants. They are looking for the potential in their potential undergraduates and looking to accept those they know can succeed.

What do these colleges see as that potential? Earl Johnson, Associate Vice President and Dean of Admissions at the University of Tulsa, gives us an idea: colleges are looking for the applicants with a sense of leadership and of social responsibility. Individualists who have initiative and drive, ready to add their part in the world. While they are looking for those top marks in students, they don’t all have to be valedictorians. From athletes, to musicians, to artists — colleges want them all.

They, however, are being done a disservice by the public education system forced in following the Common Core rule-book. The measures of success today, in public schools, are based around reaching and maintaining an academic score. In addition to that drive to push students to reach expected quality levels, as if they were being manufactured, there is no real support for those who aren’t invested in the work. Prescription medicine, to those who can afford it, attempt to focus these kids by dulling their senses.

America is slowly turning the students who can’t keep up test scores up into vegetables; they’re being trained and forced to take tests well. This is not what our colleges are asking for. We are in dire need of innovators capable of critical thinking — not zombies.

Standardized testing has the benefit of tracking student proficiency — the problem isn’t testing itself but that we test everything with the same underlying breath of importance. Will every single student necessitate a need to take a quarterly exam for Biology when not all of them will become doctors or scientists? Our tests are treating much more than the basics and may be pushing too much onto the average gradeschooler. According to a study nearly 60% of college students are entering colleges, yet, lack the readiness associated with postsecondary studies. This “readiness gap” is largest in the 60% of nonselective two-year institutions, requiring only high school diplomas to be eligible for admissions. The “readiness gap” is also smallest in selective four-year universities known for taking steps beyond grade comparison in the admissions process for students. It’s clear, the measures of success the biggest academies are using have an effect — it isn’t just the high test scores that are preparing students.

Getting children to a level that is considered prepared for college, a level without the aid of remedial courses, should be the new paradigm for success and that entails a few tacit changes. We need to change the way we see our national standards — the extreme emphasis on excellency through testing is a mental strain on our students and families. Schools are dependent on good grades, instead of good students, and often those who are simply bad at taking tests are left out to dry and flounder in a harsh world. Instead, let us look toward a system that tests student’s core skills — the basics such as reading comprehension, arithmetic, and writing. We should not be enthralled with a low score in biology or calculus — these aren’t skills all of the workforce shall need so more focus can be spent ensuring that reading skills, for example, are up to par. Anyone below the failing threshold can, and should, be attended to by each school in regards to tackling any obstacles these students may be facing. Schools today are, instead, reinforcing the best students, to keep them there, instead of the worst students, to help mask the scores that often average out.

In someways, exams need to be “decriminalized”. We’re taking them, and their results, as the end all, be all, when it simply isn’t true. There’s an entire market surrounding exams — preparatory courses can cost inordinate amounts and, as a result, are only open to those who seem to be able to afford it. Students lacking a strong financial background will find even less avenues to prepare for college and the tests, these prep courses prepare students for, are in the way of these kids reaching their full potential. It’s criminal to see all great potential go to waste, as kids mastering English can be held from graduation until they also “master” physics or History by the standards of standardized testing and common core. It’s simply taken as much more than it should be.

We’ve had a lot of talk here on whether or not there should be an emphasis on other avenues to success beyond testing. The biggest fear is funding. How expensive will it be to tackle on each individual child who is left behind and actually picking them up in ways beyond raising test scores. Enrichment programs to invest qualities of leadership do not come cheap and often times, public schools either lack the budget to pay for accessories to student education or are too unwilling to spend money in their budget to pay for student education. (And this is before we get through the reality of the situation, where corruption and real life incidents can often change the ebb and flow of money within these schools.)

We can look at how the government currently spends its budget on education — most of the president’s education budget in 2006's fiscal year was made up of $37.6 billion set aside for K through 12 education. 95% of that funding was given directly to schools on the local level by districts throughout the states. Individual schools would then be responsible for using that money on the school for a variety of reasons. We see it as a necessity to reorganize the way schools are funded and attempt to challenge these students via a backdrop of over-arching state control. Every state is different, with variation in population and culture; every district is different, with its own intrinsic qualities. If there happened to be a funding hybridization, between state and local departments, while it may not improve testing scores, it will create a basis for the enactment of programs led by the state to tackle problems in each area. No Child Left Behind is a federal program, enacting federal standards across the board — states should be merited the opportunity to create and roll out their own practices and standards — individualized approaches can be taken while maintaining a widespread balance that small-scale districts fail to manage.

Again, while this might not directly improve testing scores, say, in the next few years, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a hybrid funding policy can help these states fund their own in-state programs. Take for example a high-school technology fair. When before, only the wealthy districts could afford hack-a-thons and other events, a state-funded program may be able to pay for hosting in poorer districts, helping bring attention to these smaller schools. The hybridization takes the form in the passing of money from state to local districts — districts can be unilaterally given a varying degree of autonomy depending on the state, and states can take control of failing schools or enact programs affecting multiple schools at once, instead of waiting for change on the local levels. All this is possible, with the simple rerouting of funds in the federal education budget.

This hybrid combination between state and local government is, in effect, a small base to step off from. While the previous hypothetical emphasized state action, there’s another plan of action for districts to take. The state budget can act as a pool for district schools to apply for and draw money from. Imagine Detroit district schools having the same access to funds as Crystal Falls or Birmingham, Michigan. The state’s management of funds can help prevent the loss of usable money in the system by smaller district schools. The creation of a state-local framework can help streamline the education funding process and provide an efficient usage of the budget.

In today’s line of work, performance and success are the qualifiers of a good school. Poorly performing schools get funded less than well-performing schools. This merit funding policy fails in that it heightens the best schools while simultaneously stepping on the lesser ones — those who succeed, will continue to do so, while any schools struggling will be left out to dry. Using the state-local hybrid framework, one other policy needs to be built — the budget reassignment program. Where our current system fails, providing for lesser schools, this program succeeds. We are going to optionally ask the better schools to hand over their left-over, unused budget, by a certain deadline each year. The state’s pooled funding will then spread the money over, across the lesser performing schools in need of that extra funding.

You might be wondering why this is optional. It turns out, when you start asking people for money, that money gets used up very quickly. We’re hoping that the excess money sitting in coffers is used effectively instead of simply wasting away in some school’s account. We hope to strike a balance, however, and having all that money get soaked up is never a good idea — tax incentives and state education priority can be given to the schools that participate in providing the budget. If there is unused money still left in the hands of the schools, penalization will be enacted.

“Use it, or Lose it.”
That’s the motto.

Across the board the final, and perhaps the largest, elephant in the room is a two-syllable word applying to our teachers. Tenure. It is flawed and yet, time after time, legislation and change has stalled on improving it. Teachers who attain tenure cannot be removed easily — they have no incentive to teach at the proficient levels our children deserve, nor are they going to be as impassioned about teacher-to-student relations. How can we tackle the larger definition of success, if we don’t have leaders in the class and can’t remove those who emphasize terrible work ethic? We’ll simply generate a cycle of teachers who work hard before tenure and drop in quality after. Tenure does hold the extreme benefit of protection against arbitrary removals — this is something that we would like to keep as it does help the good teachers who might be hired by an unfortunate administration.

What needs to be done is reform the way we view tenure — make it a license; you have to make sure you are qualified in order to have it. If quality is dropping in classes, tenure should be questioned and placed on probation — if the teacher fails to pass the qualifications each state provides, as a part of the state-local hybrid policies, the teacher’s status of tenure should be removed. However, if the teacher passes the qualifications to graduate, once more, from probation then the teacher keeps their status of tenure and remains a well-performing member of society.

Right now, No Child Left Behind, is holding children accountable at its very core. Teachers and schools are entirely too dependent on the success of the child, when, success is narrowly defined in terms of a test score. Instead the schools and teachers employed should be held accountable — if they are bad at teaching, they should not be teaching. School is not a year by year experiment — with a Kindergarten through 12th grade system, children don’t have the luxury of being able to retake a year with a better teacher in place. Tenured teachers who do not care are a stain on the American education system that must be wiped clean.

The children deserve so much more than this.

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