Forget the excuses for schools' failures — focus on education
By Michael Lewis
"They graded us too hard." As kids, that ranked right up there with "The dog ate my homework" as an excuse.
Years later, we realize we got the grades we deserved — the punishment indeed fit the crime.
So as educators mouth excuses after the state last week ranked 26 Miami-Dade schools — that's right, 26 — as failures, you can almost hear the other kids years ago in grade school (assuming, that is, that Rudy Crew was in your class).
Dr. Crew, our superintendent, has already said that "there is a fundamental flaw in the way this has been rolled out to the districts" and that because local students didn't have to pass the state's science test to graduate, "they didn't take this test as very serious." If as kids we'd used the word "fundamental," we'd have said the same things. Kids who flunked hardly ever took it seriously.
School officials have already said that if they didn't count the science tests, we'd only have six failing schools — as though increasing failures from five last year to six instead of 26 would have equaled success. And if they hadn't counted the questions I didn't study for on my math test, I'd have done better, too.
You can confidently expect to hear the following excuses in coming days:
nThe testing wasn't fair because our kids are so far behind.
nThey raised the standards for a school to get a passing grade, which wasn't fair.
nOur students improved, which is the important thing, regardless of whether they meet minimum standards or not.
nWe have some great students, some great programs, some great teachers and some great schools. (That's absolutely true, but we need to get from some greats to all greats — or at least, no schools that fail minimum standards.)
nOur kids may not know enough to pass a test, but they sure can pass a football (this from coaches and principals).
Excuses aside — because none can justify the performance — the state report card should surprise no one. Ask any employer if most local high-school grads can spell, write a sentence or even count change, much less be ready to work. They are computer-literate but illiterate.
The schools are going to shift blame to the state's test or the federal government's strict levels because the Florida standard that our 26 schools failed is far below the minimum goal nationally.
There is, of course, plenty of blame for all. We can start with kids who flunk tests — and we should, because we give them full opportunity to learn and we should hold them accountable.
Then we can go to parents for not helping the kids — and we should, because education is the greatest start they can give children on the road to life.
We can blame the community for not holding our schools to higher standards and being far too willing to accept feeble gains in education where giant steps are plainly needed.
We can blame teachers for not working harder to get their pupils to work harder, or principals for not working harder to get teachers to work harder to get pupils to work harder, or administrators for not working harder to get principals to work harder to get teachers to work harder to get pupils to work harder.
We can blame our superintendent for not earning his half-million dollars a year by setting proper goals for the schools and attaining them — and his schools' atrocious grades would certainly cripple his bid for a superintendency elsewhere.
Or we could blame our school board for caving in and not making Dr. Crew accountable for what he and his team do because he pushes the board around.
We could blame state government for not funding our schools well enough to pay teachers and principals and administrators and superintendents more so that we'd have more competent educators — or so we could better reward the most competent among them. And who could deny that schools need more money?
We could do any or all of those things and find real justification for placing blame in any of those corners. We could, but that's not what's likely to happen.
Blame is going to be placed on the yardsticks that measure school and student progress. Administrators will find the tests wanting — because they don't want to admit failure. The state and federal bureaucracies will be criticized for lack of fairness.
And that will be the great crime — not that our schools are poor but that we won't admit it and focus all of our educational system's efforts on improving them. Admit problems and strive to fix them rather than striving to fix blame, of which there is plenty to go around.
Okay, state standards got harder. Sorry, folks, that's the real world. We need constant improvement. When 60% of South Florida's schools flunk federal standards, it's past time for the state to toughen up, too.
After all, it's not as though a school can't get top state rankings unless everyone is an "A" student. Schools get points for every pupil who does better than last year and bonus points if the lowest 25% of students progress. And pupils are counted at high standards, the top rank, if they get an "A," a "B" or a "C." These are not onerous tests.
Of course, the aim isn't good school rankings. Our educational system needs just two goals: to educate each and every child to his or her limits, and to prepare those well-educated youngsters to take productive roles in society. Everything else — every test or measurement — should focus on those aims rather than on garnering honors for a school system.
If state and federal yardsticks really were extraneous to education or unfair, the excuses we're about to hear could have bearing. But the yardsticks approximate a reasonable report card. They're not grading us too hard. We're achieving too little.
So complaining about the standards, rather than focusing on improving our performance, is very closely akin to moaning that "the dog ate my homework." It's not even a good try at a legitimate excuse.
We don't need excuses. We need accountability, on everyone's part, to make our schools what they should be.