Rocking the educational boat

The recent OBSERVER articles about test results from schools in both Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties were interesting to say the least, even enlightening in some respects. It was clear that some of the most highly touted schools really have no reason to brag, and other schools often disrespected by local residents don’t deserve that either.

I didn’t find anything truly surprising in any of the facts and figures presented, but I’m sure others did. I did take notice of the differences in scores along various racial and ethnic divides. Apparently there are certain factors involved than just what’s being taught in school and by whom. My, my, surprise, surprise. I guess blaming just the teachers isn’t as easy or as fair as many would like to think, and often say.

I’m really curious about these new, tougher and higher standards referred to as one of the reasons for lowered test scores. How much tougher are they? Compared to what? Are they tougher in general or just tougher compared to recent history? Is there a way to compare these standards to what was required, in say, 1965?

I ask this question based on an online article about an eighth grade test from 1912. I dare say most modern students would not pass that test. I only ask about 1965, as the answer was obvious as to that 1912 exam. It does fuel those who often discuss a “dumbing down” of education. There just might be something to that.

In reference to these test results being included as part of the new evaluation process for teachers, I have a few questions there, as well. I’ve known some fine teachers in my day. Some of those teachers had the toughest kids in their respective classes because they had a handle on them, could deal with them. Now, keeping those kids involved, making them at least meet minimum standards when others routinely threw them out of class ought to count. But my understanding is that the evaluation is based on that test score, not on the fact that perhaps this teacher was the only teacher who managed to at least keep these students engaged. Somehow, that seems to be missing an important part of any evaluation in my opinion.

Are tests results separated by what type of class the student is attending, such as the “advanced” or “enhanced” versions of English and history? I would expect a much higher score from those students than others. My next question based on this issue is, are teachers with nothing but “advanced” students evaluated the same as a teacher with almost all minorities or a teacher in “alternative education” at BOCES? This doesn’t seem fair to me. In fact, it would make that evaluation almost useless, don’t you think?

Then, I’d have to ask how the make-up of students in any particular class for any particular teacher is made. I’d be more than a bit leery if I was being evaluated, and quite subjectively I might add, by someone who has power to decide to whom I ply my skills to. So, a principal who likes teacher A can fill their class with A/B students, and teacher B, whom the principal doesn’t like, gets nothing but ESL and delinquents for students. Please don’t say that couldn’t or won’t happen. I actually know of a case where a suit was filed based on exactly that.

It was also clear in that report that money was not the deciding factor in many cases, as in money to spend per student. Many of the smaller and poorer districts did quite well. The shame of that is that those are the schools being forced to merge due exclusively to lack of funds, not lack of talent or skills. It would appear that the mergers might help financially, but certainly won’t have much bearing on how well the students are taught, and that is truly a shame. I’m beginning to think that those throwing bricks at teachers for recreational purposes just might be aiming at the wrong targets.

I know that in Buffalo at least, student attendance was an issue related to the acceptance of teacher evaluations. I have to admit, I’d be quite upset if I was a teacher with classes missing an average of 25 percent and up of what I was teaching and I was being compared to how well students did in classes with perhaps a 5 percent absentee rate, and that was not being factored in to my evaluation. That does seem a bit unfair, doesn’t it?

And on top of that, my evaluation is based on test scores of the poorest and lowest-scoring students in the area while my peers in the suburbs are teaching the children of doctors, lawyers and other teachers, with mostly two-parent homes with college educated parents. I would expect the children of poor and uneducated parents, mostly single parents, many with drug issues of their own, to not do as well, wouldn’t you? Yet the evaluations are the same, the tests are the same, so just exactly what real life meaning do they have?

Do you suppose that teacher evaluations and tougher “core standards” are political decisions made to address an uproar of complaints from frustrated parents (voters), with little chance of actual success? It would be like race results between a Ferrari and a Volkswagen Beetle; obvious, meaningless and pretty much preordained no matter whom the drivers are.

I have an idea relative to “core standards.” All students in math, for example, have to be able to write checks and balance a checkbook, do any math required for simple home repair, measuring angles and such, figure what interest rates will pay them or cost them depending on the situation, budget for groceries and bills, and just about any real world situation they’d run into in normal life, and all by the end of eighth grade.

Core standards for English would ensure that a business letter, a resume or other job application could be accomplished and instructions for any object or task could be read, and read in English. I’d also include writing legibly, and in cursive, to be part of that core standard. At the eighth-grade level, after all those living skills have been absolutely applied and instilled, standard tests should be done to separate the “wheat from the chaff,” so to speak, and a two-track system installed wherein not everybody goes to college.

That’s what every other industrialized country does and it is why their high schools routinely do better than ours comparatively. I’m sure it won’t happen, as parents (voters) demand a “one-size-fits-all” educational system then complain when the obvious results. Ah well, as they say, it is what it is, and I don’t see a lot of meaningful change on the horizon.

Paul Christopher is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to