November 11, 2019

Education–The Great Mystery

It’s September, and the children are back in school, so it’s time for a little quiz. Take a look at the following sentence:

The students (a) have discovered that (b) they can address issues more effectively (c) through letter-writing campaigns (d) and not through public demonstrations. (e) No error.

Is there an error after one of the letters in parentheses, or is the sentence correct as is? If you said there is an error after d, you would be correct. The people who make the SAT test explain the answer this way: When a comparison is introduced by the adverb “more” as in “more effectively,” the second part of the comparison must be introduced by the conjunction “than” rather than “and not.”

Want another chance? Okay, try this:

Maude Adams, after her spectacular (a) triumph as the original Peter Pan, (b) went about (c) heavy veiled and was accessible to (d) only a handful of intimate friends. (e) No error.

The correct answer is (c). The SAT folks give this explanation: The word “heavy” in the phrase “heavy veiled” should not be in the form of an adjective but in the adverbial form (“heavily”) since it is used to modify the participle “veiled.”

I begin this article with a quiz because the College Board, which produces the SAT test, announced recently that the 1.7 million graduating high school seniors who took the exam last year scored a worst in math since 1999, a worst in reading since 1972, and a worst in the writing section since it was introduced in 2005. A perfect score is 800 in each section, and the math, reading, and writing scores were 511, 495, and 484 respectively. The general trend has been down for many years, with only a few upward blips. Writing scores, on the other hand, are in free fall and have never seen an upward blip.

The standard liberal explanation for this shameful situation is a lack of money. No matter how much money has been, and continues to be, spent on K-12 education, it’s never enough. Columnist Chriss W. Street, of Breitbart News, however, reports that government spending as a percent of GDP (gross domestic product) for K-12 has risen from 2 percent in the 1950s to 4.4 percent under the Obama administration. Street also reports that “of the $3.2 trillion in total expenditures by state and local governments in 2012, public education accounted for the highest percent at nearly 28 percent, or $869.2 billion.” Still, no matter how high the expenditures soar, to the educational establishment, it will never be enough.

If the “lack of money” argument doesn’t work, then the fall-back position is that too many students come from broken homes where there is no parental support. Without such support, students are undisciplined, unmotivated, and unruly. This argument has some validity, but the teacher unions have backed politicians and government programs that have led to much of the destruction of the home. So, they have helped to create the crisis and then complain that there is a crisis. It’s like a man who blows up the dam and then is enraged when his home is swept away.

The last rationale for student failure on national tests is that the tests themselves are flawed and don’t really test students on relevant information. After all, if a student misses both questions at the beginning of this article, does that mean that he will be a failure in life? Of course, no one knows the answer to that question, so why bother with such a test? The formula goes like this: bad test=bad score=bad idea.

But the real reason for declining SAT scores is that most schools in America do not offer a rigorous academic program. Courses offer little or no challenge to the students. Combine this with incompetent teachers, and you have a recipe for educational malfeasance.

Still, there is hope. There is a blueprint for success, and it is Finland. Each year, students from Finland high schools have the top scores of over forty nations in the prestigious Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which measures advanced thinking and communication skills. It’s a great accomplishment but was unthinkable forty years ago when Finland had one of the worst education programs in the world.

But in the 1970s, the Finnish government decided to do something about it. The first goal was to offer a rigorous, demanding curriculum, beginning in first grade. Students were expected to master the subject matter for each grade, and they were allowed to fail. No student was passed to the next grade without proven success.

If the curriculum was to be demanding, it had to be taught by the best, most qualified teachers. The government eliminated many teacher-education programs in various colleges until only eight were left. Standards for admittance to those universities were so high that less than 20 percent of applicants were accepted.

Today the standards are even higher, and the percentage of accepted applicants is far lower. Becoming a teacher now takes six years of study with the first four years focused on the subject matter the individual will teach. Each teacher has to get a master’s degree in his particular discipline. After that, a teacher must train for a full year under the tutelage of three master teachers.

Most Finns today look upon teachers as professionals with exceptional knowledge and skills. Teacher unions in Finland brag that they have the best educated teachers in the world, and it is true. Oh, in case you were wondering, Finnish teachers are paid commensurately with professions in the private sector.

Of course, the majority of parents respect teachers and encourage their children to study and to succeed. After all, they know that good grades invariably lead to good careers.

The lessons from Finland’s amazing education turnaround should be clear: Insist upon a rigorous curriculum, have the best, most-educated teachers available, and expect outstanding results. And yet, in America, education still seems to be a great mystery that no one can solve. Or perhaps those in power find it beneficial to keep young people ignorant. Either way, the students pay a terrible price.

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Written by
Thomas Addis

THOMAS ADDIS is a retired high school teacher and published author, most recently authoring a children's book, A Gift of Light, which is available at Amazon. An M.A. graduate of Oakland University, he is Associate Editor of Catholic Journal. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and cycling.

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