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Educating from the top

Strings attached to funding can tie educators’ hands

Back when I authored children’s books, I got to hang out with public school teachers. This was both fun and edifying, since, while homeschooling my own kids from grades one to 12, my main exposure to public school came from John Taylor Gatto. Gatto, a veteran teacher and author of Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction, was very sour on the school system.

But the system isn’t necessarily the teachers, many of whom do the best they can with dwindling resources and constant “improvements” in education policy. During my school-visit years, the latest improvement was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a federal mandate that left almost every teacher behind. NCLB demanded accountability, and the only way to get it was by standardized testing. Test prep and practice consumed so much classroom time, especially during spring semester, that there was little left for fun stuff like author visits.

I was sympathetic, and yet … wasn’t it all about the money? Both teachers and administrators complained about underfunding, but if the feds were handing out money, might they want some accountability? Besides, the U.S. Department of Education supplied only 8 percent to 10 percent of a state’s education budget. Couldn’t local districts find a way to ditch the tests and forgo the dollars?

I never asked.

Public funding makes public demands, and mass schooling means mass management.

Teachers still complain, with some justification, about teaching to the test. That may be why so many of them supported Oregon Senate Bill 744. The bill passed both Oregon houses in June and was signed by Gov. Kate Brown on July 14, in a process reported as “unusually quiet.” No wonder, because when the news broke, it broke hard: “Oregon governor signs bill suspending math, reading proficiency requirements for HS graduates.” Across the podcast world it stirred about five minutes of outrage: “more dumbing down education,” “public school failure,” “Is this how we compete?”

There’s more to the story. The focus of SB 744 is not erasing standards (or not directly), but reconsidering graduation requirements after the devastation wrought by a year of online school. “Demonstrating proficiency” in math and reading means passing Oregon’s four Essential Skills tests, a bridge too far for the many underprivileged students who fell through the cracks. While a task force evaluates Oregon’s graduation requirements and makes recommendations, the state will waive said requirements. In the meantime, high-school students must “successfully complete the credit requirements” in order to graduate—that is, show up for class and turn in homework.

Teachers who supported the bill in public testimony consistently pointed to the tyranny of testing: “being reduced to a single number on a single day”; “devastating for students, teachers, and principals.” “I was not teaching how to write [or] communicate … I was test-prepping them—again.” Isn’t there a better way to educate kids of diverse backgrounds and incomes?

Not in the overbuilt, top-heavy structure we have now. Public funding makes public demands, and mass schooling means mass management. Classroom teaching has never been the best model, but back in the day of mostly local control, it was much more responsive.

Sen. Ben Sasse, in his book The Vanishing American Adult, makes the point that schooling is not education. Schooling is limited to four walls; education happens everywhere. “Public education” is becoming an oxymoron—a point lost on the Biden administration, now pushing for free preschool and free community college. They assume more schooling equals more learning and therefore more opportunity. The equation isn’t that simple.

It’s not that kids can’t succeed in school, or that nothing good can come out of a classroom. Most of us can recall at least one inspiring teacher who made a lifelong impact on our developing minds. It’s just that the further education policy gets from the individual child, the less effective it will be. Oregon may be making a good-faith attempt to meet the needs of at-risk students by reevaluating their standards. But starting at the top almost guarantees lowering—even eliminating—standards at the bottom.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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