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Misguided: Education's Biggest Myth

This week I received the following essay from Maryland teacher Dave Russell. It offers us a fresh lens, questioning some of the assumptions that lie under our education reform paradigm.

The Myth
A pervasive myth has caused havoc in public education for far too long. The myth is the belief that the academic achievement level for each child in the country can and should be controlled by the government, through public education.

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What Makes It A Myth?

The goal of public education is to provide a high quality education to every child in the country. This high quality education is an opportunity that should be provided to every child. Since government run public education does not control whether a family or child will take full advantage of this opportunity, they have limited control over the final academic achievement level of each child. It is simply not logical to try to control a students or families beliefs, values, or expectations, when the authority to do so has never been granted.

Our country is a democracy with specific rules that guide the development of our laws. Many of these laws are created with the intent of providing equality and freedom to our citizens. Public education can only require specific behavior from its students and families, if a law or regulation that dictates it has been created and accepted through our democratic process. In education, some of the laws or lack of laws are very significant to student achievement. For example, there is no law that requires a child to engage in anything educational before he/she enters kindergarten. The law in most states, permits students to drop out at sixteen years of age. There are no laws that require a student to graduate from high school or even to reach a defined level of knowledge in any specific subject area. There are no laws that require students to complete homework, complete summer school work, or accomplish anything educational outside of the school day. The laws for truancy are fairly strict, only permitting ten unexcused absences a year. However, absenteeism is still a major problem. Truancy is not regulated sufficiently and some parents or eighteen year old students simple write excused notes for each absence. It is futile to try to assume control over a student's behavior or academic achievement level, without the establishment of laws that approve of it and enforce it. That is like trying to require every student and family to eat nutritious meals and exercise everyday. It may be a desirable goal, but our citizens have not agreed to institute a law that supports it.

Students and families do not have to agree with or strive to achieve every goal that public education or the government have deemed essential for our country. Nobody has been given the authority to supersede our democratic process and create their own requirements for citizens, even in the name of righteous goals.

Now What?
We need to make a paradigm shift in the current way we determine the competency of public education. Public education needs to be measured by its ability to provide every child with a high quality education that is capable of producing high achieving students, who think for themselves and contribute positively to our society. Capable is the key word in the definition. Educators and schools can possess and apply all the qualities that are needed to produce high academic achievement. However, they can not and should not ever hold the power to completely control their students' beliefs, behavior, or academic achievement level. Public education's only power lays in its ability to influence and provide knowledge to the children who attend school.

Technology has created extremely effective ways of collecting data in education. This data can be very helpful in producing effective educational practices among educators, schools, and communities. However, data is only useful if it is being applied appropriately. Student achievement on math and reading tests will never accurately reflect the competency of public education. Measuring overall student achievement in every subject area would give only a small indication of whether an educator or school is competent. Measuring the achievement growth of every student over the course of each year would be an improvement, but is still grossly inadequate at verifying educator or school competency. Currently, there is no precise way to confirm what knowledge a student has learned from his/her educators or school and what knowledge a student has learned from parents, siblings, tutors, personal determination, or any other external factor. Perhaps the most overlooked problem is the lack of an effective way to determine each student's effort or motivation when taking a test.

The government needs to be accountable for providing the resources that all children need both in and out of school. It also needs to provide the competent educational workforce that will give every child the opportunity to receive a high quality education. Families, schools, communities, and local/state/federal governments can use incentives to help influence or motivate children to reach specific goals. However, each child will ultimately decide which goals he/she will strive to achieve.

Every child is an individual. Every child, parent, educator, and school is unique. The progression of learning fluctuates from individual to individual. Although many people believe that each child's academic potential is limitless, each child will not reach the same level of achievement at the same time. Educators, parents, and schools need to help each student progress at the pace that is appropriate for them. This means that all students will not reach the same learning standards at the end of each year. Some students will need more resources or educational time to reach each standard, because they may lack support or need support in a particular area. Other students will accelerate through each learning standard and they may want or need to graduate ahead of schedule.

The current gap in achievement between underprivileged or minority students and White or Asian students can be justified as long as the underprivileged or minority students are given the resources and time that they need to reach the potential that they or their family desire. This may mean a longer school day, longer school year, or more than the traditional thirteen years of school. The same will be true with non English speaking students, special education students, and students who have inadequate parental support. These students may need considerable help outside of the school day. Educators and schools need to facilitate each students learning from whatever part of the continuum that the student is currently on. Public education should be held accountable for meeting the academic needs of its students, not for trying to ensure that every child reaches a specific level of academic achievement.

Final Thought
To continue to allow this Myth to dictate educational policy is to continue to live a lie. No matter how honorable or desirable the goals may be, operating under a false premise will only end in failure. As children develop their own values, priorities, and critical thinking skills, they will ultimately decide what they want to achieve in school and in life. Our schools should support all children in the pursuit of their individual vocation or calling in life, their true potential. The longer our country uses public education in an attempt to control each student's academic achievement level, the more misguided our students, families, and schools will eventually become.

I am a product of The Howard County Public School System in Maryland. After spending 5 years at Oakland Mills High School, I finally graduated in 1989 with a cumulative GPA of 0.6. I never took the SAT's and required remedial reading and writing courses when I attended Howard Community College in Maryland. I graduated from Towson State University in 1995 with a Bachelor's degree in Education. For the last fourteen years, I have taught for the Montgomery County Public School System in Maryland. I am the father of two daughters, who I believe are receiving an excellent education from the Howard County Public School System in Maryland. My goal is to create positive change in education. I can be reached at [email protected]

What do you think of Dave Russell's point of view? Should schools be accountable for students achieving at a predetermined level? How can schools be held accountable when students cannot be compelled to learn?

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