By G.K. Zachary, Westchester Community College
A young minority student approaches me after class and asks if she can speak with me. She says that she wants to be a doctor; that she was an A student in high school; that she won a pre-med scholarship at a prestigious U.S. university.
However, when she began her first semester at college she quickly discovered to her chagrin that she didn’t have the math and chemistry skills necessary to meet the university’s requirements. So she transferred to a community college in order to remedy those deficiencies. Nonetheless, her scholarship was history.
We are not giving our students the education they deserve.
Test scores consistently indicate that our K–12 educational system is a disaster. The recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Assessment (TIMSS) indicate that the most developed countries in Europe and Asia continue to surpass the United States with respect to reading, mathematics, and scientific literacy.
The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that only 37 percent of twelfth-grade students read at or above proficiency. Only 25 percent of K–12 students were proficient in math skills and 22 percent were scientifically literate.
Even more problematic is that minorities performed worse than the national average. Only 17 percent of African-Americans and 25 percent of Latinos read at or above proficiency. Only 7 percent of African-Americans and 12 percent of Latinos demonstrated proficiency in mathematics.
But troubling as these statistics are, they do not tell the whole truth nor even the most important truth about K–12 education. More than 100 years ago, the great biologist Thomas Huxley observed that standardized testing tended to do more harm than good because it gave a false impression of how educated a student in fact is.
“Students aim to pass, not to know,” said Huxley of such tests. They are at best “an imperfect test” of how much information a student retains for a limited time and an even more imperfect test of intellectual ability.
I would propose that far more important than our obsession with testing and test scores is my experience and those of other college professors who year in and year out watch students enter college thoroughly unprepared to do college work and, worse, ill-prepared to enter the workforce.
Too many students are often unable to write a decent five-page essay. One student came to me with tears in his eyes and told me that he had never written a paper in high school.
They have no research skills worth speaking of. Few know their way around a physical library. Even basic online research skills are lacking.
I routinely ask how many of my students have read the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. If I’m lucky, four or five students out of a class of 30 or so will raise their hands. Of the great outlines and themes of history they are typically oblivious. Ditto the great works of world literature.
We are a society that likes to boast about commitment to our cultural diversity. Yet ask a student if he or she has a relatively in-depth familiarity with two or more foreign cultures and one is met with silence. Foreign language proficiency is rare—and this in a time of increasing internationalization!
Our failed K–12 system threatens the economic and moral well-being of our entire country. Our students must be equipped with the requisite literary, scientific and mathematical skills and knowledge so that they may be economically sufficient and career competent throughout their lives.
Poor students in urban and rural areas especially need an education that enables them to rise above their precarious economic condition. So, too, those students whose families are economically destitute and must depend on the state for their tenuous survival.
We are by nature social animals. We need to provide for our material necessities. But there is more than mere economic survival at stake. For we live in society not only to survive but also to live well, that is, to actualize as best we may our human potential whether such fulfillment be found in a life of action, in thought and learning, or in art and creativity.
No Child Left Behind and Common Core have failed miserably to meet any of these goals. The obsession with testing and political correctness has prevented the real work of education from being accomplished. Indeed, such programs have done more to harm students economically, morally and culturally than most realize.
If we do not remedy our educational system, the consequences will only exacerbate the present devastation. Those who enter college will drop out for lack of proper preparation, only to be trapped in menial employment and thus into penury; those who struggle through college and graduate will not have the skills they really need to succeed in the workplace.
As a result, economic insufficiency and economic anxiety shall only be aggravated. It is no accident that we are in the midst of an opioid crisis.
The effects of this crisis will be felt across society. But it is the poor and especially the urban poor who will suffer most. How many youths will roam in the streets without gainful employment? How many, not being gainfully employed, shall be tempted to a life of crime and condemned to prison? How much more economic and social unrest must we have before another city is set ablaze? How much more social discord and civil enmity are we to risk at our own peril?
The states and the federal government are largely to blame for the decline and fall of American education. More federal or state aid will solve nothing. Our governments have thrown millions, if not trillions, into education and our society is none the better for it.
Families and communities need to come together to solve this problem that government has failed to remedy. They must re-take control of their schools. Parents and families and teachers need to hold the requisite authorities accountable for their gross educational misconduct.
Instead, we need to look at the young men and women who are graduated from high school and to ensure that they do indeed have the skills they need to make them prosperous in the marketplace, fit as citizens of their various communities, and morally and culturally fulfilled as human beings regardless if they choose to go to college or not.
(College is not for everyone and thus we need to make sure that those who wish to attend a trade school or simply enter the workaday world unadorned with a bachelor’s degree are equally ready for the future.)
We need smaller classrooms, competent teachers, a return to tried-and-true pedagogical methods, and coherent curriculum. A thought: Let each student be assigned to a small team of teachers who carefully supervise through personal oversight and interaction so that each student is ready not only for the examinations they must take but more importantly for the world they must face.
When a senior university administrator at a top private college says the primary job these days of the first two years of college is to undo the damage done in the first 12, it is clear that our K–12 system is a catastrophic failure. We must change now or else the very fabric of our society is threatened for generations to come.
G.K. Zachary is a professor of philosophy at Westchester Community College. He is presently writing a book on education.