Education: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Bill Neinast

Education is a recurring topic in the national and local news.

Nationally, the subjects are the declining academic rankings in international comparisons and the CORE curricula.  Locally, the topics are homework and CSCOPE lesson plans.

A recent letter to the editor in The Banner-Press concerning too much homework gave credence to the concern about declining standards.  There were 23 grammatical and syntax errors in the eight paragraph letter.  Maybe there is not enough homework instead of too much.

The letter brought back memories of my days as a professor of state and federal government at Blinn College 30 years ago. I was appalled then at the lack of basic English grammar skills in my college students. 

Twenty years ago, I asked Dr. Wilfred Dietrich, Chairman of the English Department at Blinn, if the students’ grammar had improved since I left.  His answer, “Bill it’s gotten worse.”

Here is an example.  An end of semester research paper was required of each student.  The grade on the paper would be a substantial part of the student’s final grade.  

Written instructions for the paper were distributed on the first day of class. Although the subject was government, the students were told that one point would be deducted for each grammatical error and misspelled word. 

I suggested that they do their research and writing early in the semester, lay it aside for a week or so, and review it for clarity.  About a week before the paper was due, ask a friend to review it.  The friend might find errors that the author had skimmed over because of familiarity.

In every class, a substantial majority appeared to have been researched and written the night before they were due.

A copy of one of those papers is still on my desk.  The nine pages with very wide margins at the top, bottom, and both sides has 88 grammatical and spelling errors.  I gave the author 50 for content, and that was a gift, then deducted 88 for the errors.  Her research paper grade was a -38.

That was then.  This is now when some college freshmen are required to take remedial courses in English, math, and other courses in order to progress at the college.

Why is there such a constant slide to lower standards and ranking?

One reason may be the federal and state mandates for standardized tests.

I did not take a single final exam during my last two years of high school.  In 1944 the Somerville School District established programs that exempted students with final course grades of 90 or higher from final exams.  The administrators believed that anyone with semester grades in that range obviously knew the subject.

Last week, I discussed this no final exam policy with someone about 15 years younger than me.  She said that was also the policy in her school in the late 1950s.

Those schools graduated students who went on to earn college degrees without the need for remedial courses.  Among those students are Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller who developed the atomic bomb and Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

In those days, teachers were allowed to use whatever method he or she thought was necessary to get the students to the level of understanding  desired by the teacher.  There was also no “social promotions.”  A student who did not rise to the level required by his teachers would be held back for another try.  Today, in some schools, teachers are not permitted to give even one failing grade.

This summary leads to one conclusion.  Federal and state politicians got into the act and violated a basic law of human activity.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The system seems to have been working fine until money began moving local control higher and higher.  Politicians and judges began to believe that it is not “fair” for some school districts to have more money than others.  So the state legislators said “We’ll fix that by moving money from one district to another. Now that we are controlling who gets what, we have to know that the money is being spent wisely.  The only way we can do that is to have every student in each grade take the same tests. That way we will know what teachers are doing well and teaching the students what we think they ought to know.”

So began the standardized, state-wide tests.  When the bureaucrats in Washington saw how this was placing more authority in their state underlings, they decided they wanted a piece of the pie.  Therein was born federal funds for local school and standardized national testing.

So here’s the perspective.

American education is in the pits and has been there for decades.  In the mid 1990s, I visited with a Polish high school exchange student in Somerville.  She said she was bored to death in the local schools.  They were studying algebra in high school that she had learned in grade school in Poland.

Shortly after that conversation I was having my computer repaired in Austin.  Upon overhearing one of his telephone conversations, I realized that he too was from Poland.  In our following conversation, he stated that he was returning to Poland with his family because the education system here was so inferior to that in his homeland.

The more we engage in standardized tests and curricula, the deeper we sink in ratings.  

Is it time to return to the system working beautifully before the bureaucrats decided to fix it?


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