Sunday, December 9, 2007

Letter: Keep Our Eye On The Ball

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Keep Our Eye On The Ball

In Saturday’s “Federal Way Mirror” newly elected president of the Federal Way School Board asks us to “keep our eye on the ball” when it comes to the education of our community’s children. He is so right!

It would be well to understand that the “ball,” or even the shape of the ball, is not defined in Federal Way, Washington State, or even the Nation. We are now in an “international game” and this ball is not found on a field or in a gymnasium, and the scoreboard isn’t at one end of either a field or gymnasium. Let’s not have an extended debate on “what shape the ball should be” as this isn’t a matter for Federal Way to decide. In the 21st century the rest of the “teams” are pretty focused on skills that are productive, and allow their children to be constructively productive in society.

The “scores” in this game keep coming in and they aren’t inspiring. The nation is 25th in the world in mathematics, 29th in the world in science. Less than 10% of students, nationally, can tell you the difference between Thailand and Taiwan, high school social studies teachers cannot make it through the 5th grade social studies questions on the television program “are you smarter than a 5th grader,” 50% of all the 10th grade students in Federal Way cannot do 8th grade mathematics, only 25% of minority students can do 8th grade math, less than 20% of those taking Advanced Placement tests in Federal Way can earn credit for the course they have taken. A parent once told me that their son was taking “Advanced Placement Physical Education!” While the national average for Merit Scholars is between 1% and 2% of graduating classe, we only have one high school that has any at all.

The previous school board, at least a majority of them, didn’t want to even learn the scores that fit on this scoreboard!

Newsweek and USNews and World Report have both listed the finest high schools in the nation. There are no schools on Newsweek’s list of 1,200 and of the 44 high schools in the State of Washington that are on the USNews report we haven’t made either list. There are no schools in South King County on either list! So much for a “reputation” in college admissions.

A recent survey of parents, nationally, found that the highest priority they felt for education was that their children be “satisfied” with school! In this world of “things” satisfaction with Trigonometry may just not be possible. When I explained this to a community leader last week they expressed, justifiably, shock that this could even be considered a viable priority. Satisfaction for today’s America’s teens is more about cell phones, MySpace, and malls than it is about “classroom learning.” “Multitasking” that includes any serious learning just doesn’t have a priority. Elsewhere in the world teenagers are “required” to rearrange priorities to excel in things like trigonometry. Here, “satisfaction” overtakes any concentration on learning.

This past week I spoke with a former school board member who was shocked at what they found to be the knowledge base of some students that they had met recently. Not me! I have been tutoring in this community for several years and I have become immune to the gaps that I see in the basic knowledge of today’s students. However I have been assured by “educators” that a knowledge base just isn’t important as we have now moved on to “critical thinking!” Arriving at wise decisions, “critical” thinking, requires knowing as many facts about the topic as possible but I am assured that these facts are all “readily available.” I don’t think that I want to be looking for the “facts” on how to drive on ice when I find myself in an icy situation.

Are there solutions to this? I think so, but they involve some unpleasant discussions with educators and parents about standards and priorities. We have to insist that reports to parents be accurate even if they are unpleasant. This accuracy has to be linked to actual standards for the subject, not to the relative performance of others in the class. “Doing well” just isn’t an accurate report. Once we are sure that parents are getting accurate information as bad as that may be, based upon standards not opinions that are designed to soothe parents, then we will find some parents that are shocked enough to “rearrange priorities” of their family. This renewed emphasis upon actual academic process should change the climate of our secondary schools where we have actually seen a decline in relative achievement for most kids. Some places this is called grade inflation and it seems to be a great ingredient in developing “satisfaction.”

This would take a determined school board focused on “the ball” and the “scoreboard.”

President Larson concludes with “Larry the Cable Guy’s” quote “Let’s “get ’er done.”


-- Charlie Hoff


FedWayan said...

The first step in getting FW's kids on track to international level of academics would be to get them modern textbooks.

The second step would be to commit to teaching them internationally accepted scientific facts. I don't trust Dave Larson to do this, as he has shown far too much willingness to succumb to political and theological influences in academics. One reason the U.S. loses at the international academic "game" is that most of the countries on the leaderboard don't tend to sully their education (or their government) with political and religious biases.

Step three would be to make school a place where children want to be and participate in, instead of coming up with new arbitrarily created and enforced rules for them to follow, handing out detention and suspension like candy, or scrambling to jam WASL knowledge into their heads at the last minute. (Watching a FW student go through WASL cram time is disturbingly reminiscent of college finals week. Kids in grades 5-10 shouldn't be going through that.)

Let's not, however, become so engrossed in science and geography that we leave the arts behind. If U.S. kids have one advantage over the rest of the world, it's that the U.S. is still a worldwide creative leader. Our music, movies, television, etc., are, for what it's worth, admired and imitated the world over like those of no other country. If we decide to play the technical "game", let's make sure not to lose our edge in the creative "game" as a result.

It's terribly telling that a FWPS board member was surprised to discover what the average student knew (or didn't). It shows just how out of touch they are with the schools they are in charge of. They need to stop banning things and making rules and waving legal sticks, and start actually caring about actual education in FW.


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