SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Academic Standards Overdone
Let me try this one out on you: If we just made teaching harder, all the teachers in the profession would become better at their jobs.
Or, how about: If state engineers would just design roads with more twists and hairpin turns, everyone would learn to drive like Jeff Gordon.
Somewhere, someone might see a little logic in these statements.
Certainly, some teachers, if the profession were tougher, would adapt to the conditions around them and improve their job skills. But more would respond by deciding that they had had enough. They'd quit, and already troubling teacher retention rates would fall.
Designing roads to look like Watkins Glen race track would, in fact, make better drivers of some people. It would also produce more wrecks and more traffic deaths.
Any reasonable person would conclude that neither of these propositions is a sound way to accomplish either objective.
Nonetheless, this is exactly the approach we seem to be taking when it comes to improving our public schools. If we just make class work tougher on little Sally and little Johnny, they'll be better students.
Sixteen years ago, North Carolina began down the current road of school reform with then-Senate leader Henson Barnes' Senate Bill 1. The reform effort morphed into the ABCs of Public Education, increasing school accountability and academic standards.
Any objective look at North Carolina's accountability model will show that it has improved student performance. Throughout most of the 1990s, North Carolina students performed better on the NAEP, or National Assessment of Education Progress, tests.
These days, though, education officials and policy commentators seem to have concluded, with some evidence to back their claims, that gains have leveled off. There's growing discontent with North Carolina's frequently-botched testing program.
Increasing the pressure on the education establishment is the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Its requirements provide frequent reminders that -- even in a period of some academic gains -- North Carolina schools are, in fact, leaving many children behind.
The knee-jerk, intellectually easy answer to these problems: Ratchet up the academic standards.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with raising academic standards. But just like strapping drivers with no training and no support into a race car at Watkins Glen, higher academic standards alone will only ensure that more students crash and burn.
As a young reporter 15 years ago, when this current school reform effort was in its infancy, I heard education scholars speak of innovation, of schools designed "outside the box." I heard them talk about how school models created for the homogeneous communities in the early 20th century couldn't succeed in the 21st century.
Fifteen years later, where is this innovation? Where is the courageous political leadership calling for real solutions like true individualized instruction at the elementary level?
We need better schools, not just tougher schools.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at smooneyh
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