In 2009 and 2010, 10th graders in the Hoquiam School District scored a dismal 24.8% and 26.8% passing rate on the math portion of Washington’s standardized test. Although given in 10th grade, it tests students on mathematical concepts usually taught in 8th grade. So, roughly three out of four 10th graders in Hoquiam (converting the percentage to a fraction, something that might have been on the test) failed an exam covering 8th grade material. Not a single person (or 0% of parents, guardians, and concerned citizens) thought this problem serious enough to attend a School Board meeting and/or confront the Directors.
About a year later a shakeup occurred in the Physical Education teaching assignments due to enrollment changes and a teacher leaving the district. The Superintendent had several options on how to use the remaining staff to cover all PE and Health classes. One possibility was to shift a high school teacher to the middle school and, based on seniority and teaching qualifications, this was the logical choice. As it turned out, this teacher was also the head football coach at the high school. When it became known this move was under consideration, 16 people, including a couple of former School Board Directors, showed up at the next Board meeting to protest.
If the reassignment had occurred the teacher would have still been the head football coach. His new posting at the middle school would be a block away from the high school. Assistant coaches and others associated with the football program would have still been teaching at the high school and been available to give or receive information to/from the players. The coach could have continued to open the high school weight room before school. And, at the middle school, the head coach would have had the opportunity to build his football program by encouraging 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to turn out. At the same time the head fast pitch, volleyball, swimming, girls’ basketball, boys’ golf, and wrestling coaches did not teach at the high school and still managed to run their programs. So why the fuss? Is having your head high school football coach in the building more important than having three quarters of your entire student body failing to understand math concepts that are two years below grade level?
When I was applying for scholarships as a high school senior I noticed something interesting. One of my interviewers looked at my GPA relative to my SAT scores and remarked they were a good reflection upon each other; a lot of smaller schools like mine (a total enrollment of around 500 students) have inflated GPAs, he told me. I laughed it off, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, phew, dodged a bullet there. Not until my first college pre-calculus test did I realize how wholly unprepared I was in both knowledge and study habits (I took calculus in high school, but we’ll talk about that later). I didn’t know people received 5s (the highest possible score) on their AP tests, courses I took just to say I did. Was this my fault? I certainly could have pushed myself to learn more, but why would I when I was one “A” away from a 4.0 GPA? Turns out my GPA was a bit inflated after all.
My high school didn’t promote education as you might think. Math my freshman and sophomore year consisted of students sewing quilts and donating them for extra credit, which would lead to my eventual “A” grade. I passed biology and chemistry with flying colors but got a 2 and 1 on their AP tests respectively, with the former being the highest mark in my class. So, where was the learning?
It certainly wasn’t in pre-calculus or calculus. I, being a lazy and foolhardy teenager, was fine with the fact I got an “A” in both classes. This despite the fact we took weekly quizzes in which I routinely scored 60%. How did I get an “A”? I have no idea, maybe it’s because I wasn’t taught enough math to figure it out. By the way, this lack of learning was led by a teacher who held National Board Certification. Raises at least one eyebrow, right?
The question people should be asking is, what is their education worth? I and many others from my high school still went on to university, but with GPAs inflated the way they were, who knows if anyone was truly prepared to do so. Parents, for the most part, seemed unaffected by the inability of teachers to get 30% of 10th graders to pass the math portion of a standardized test. Maybe they didn’t care, or maybe they had no alternative as there were no charter schools in the area and private school may have been too expensive.
This is where the ideas of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos come in. Her goal is simple: allow parents and students to choose where they get an education without forcing them to pay for an education they don’t want. This is the basic premise behind a voucher program. Currently, the government puts about $11,000 into public schools per student each year. This means billions of taxpayer dollars are going to schools that may or may not teach students basic algebra. If you were, say, a parent who wanted their child to learn basic algebra, maybe the money should be afforded to you to cover the cost of a school capable of fulfilling this requirement.
Voucher programs do have pros and cons. They have shown an increased rate of high school graduation by about 12%, but they have also led to reduced standardized test scores. As the Education Research Alliance acknowledges however, there are a variety of reasons you may see an initial decrease in state test scores by students using the voucher program. The most striking reason to me is curricula alignment – private schools do not teach to meet the standards of a state test.
This is a direct contradiction to my learning experience. From 4th grade until 10th grade all we learned was how to pass the WASL (the standardized state test at the time). This explains why I was never taught how to do long division – it wasn’t on the WASL so why waste our time? Still, 70+% of students in my district couldn’t pass, even though everyone was specifically taught for this one objective. The WASL has since been replaced by numerous other tests, now settling on End-of-Course Exams for biology and Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) for English and Math. Still, in the first two years of the SBA, my former district has failed to reach a 20% pass rate in math portion.
I am not defending Secretary DeVos’ credentials to hold her position, nor do I claim voucher programs are guaranteed to benefit all students as there is not yet enough conclusive evidence. I merely mean to defend the idea there are other approaches to quality education. Both charter and private schools are an option to get your child in a program where education comes first. If you instead choose to support a failing public school, you reserve the right to keep your child and dollars there – and may God have mercy on your immortal soul.
This is not to say all public schools are failing or all teachers in public schools are hacks – I’ve had good, bad, and outstanding. But maybe, by giving parents more choices, they will worry more about their child’s education instead of a football coach moving down the street.