Recently, I was in a department store shopping when some pretty holiday placemats caught my eye, along with a sale sticker indicating they were offered for a very affordable price. I snatched up four. At the checkout counter, however, they rang up at twice what I thought the sale price was, so I asked the cashier, a nice young woman, about it.
Here’s where my holiday spirit started to descend. She picked up the phone to ask a floor clerk to check on the item. But she seemed completely unable to accurately describe the pieces, despite some diplomatic prompting on my part. I’ve become used to cashiers unable to do simple math if their computerized registers give out—and I don’t quibble too much over that, since lack of practice and reliance on the machines would make my math skills rusty under those circumstances, as well. But encountering a language skills problem with a cashier was new.
Here’s my description of my purchase: round placemats with scalloped edges, printed with a pattern of red poinsettias and green holly against a beige background. The reverse side was a red and green plaid against a beige background. Her description to the clerk: round tablemats with a curly edge with red flowers and wreaths on them. After some back and forth on the phone, the floor clerk finally came to the counter where she noted, “Oh, it does have holly on it,” implying that she’d asked the cashier about this and received a negative response.
As I waited through this lengthy price check, I kept thinking about this poor cashier. She seemed reasonably bright. English was not a second language for her. But she was a minority. And I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help wondering if excuses had been made at her school for why she wasn’t faring well in language skills. Was she one of the minority students ill-served by accommodations? By accommodations, I mean the excuses that are made for certain groups of students—minority, poor, etc.—for being incapable of learning at the level of more affluent and/or white students.
Years ago, I remember when some activists accused the compilers of college entrance SAT tests of being biased against minorities. In particular, I remember one of the analogies held up as an example of this bias. It was something like “A yacht is to a regatta as a blank is to blank.” How could minority students be expected to know what a yacht or a regatta was, the criticism went. How could any teen raised in inner city poverty be expected to know that? Well, I thought, maybe the same way a teen such as myself, whose parents had only gone as far as high school, and who was raised in a blue-collar suburb, was expected to know it—by reading. By being drilled and tested on language acquisition skills.
The critics of the SAT must have believed that minority and poor students were incapable of learning that which they’d not experienced—a great irony, since education should be at least a partial substitute for experience, helping learners avoid painful experiences. Now, years later, are we reaping the results of that kind of thinking? Was the cashier in my opening story unable to find the word “holly” because she had no experience of it?
Sadly, she might not be alone, and this might not be a minority/poor problem. All you need to do is look at national testing—the NAEP scores—to see what I mean. According to NAEP tests, the majority of students, even in the top-scoring states, are not at the proficient level in reading.
Take a look at Massachusetts, the top-scoring state, a fact that Gov. Mitt Romney touted during one presidential debate. Their top score means that 43 percent of eighth-graders taking the NAEP reading test were at or above the proficient level. Or, let’s put it another way: it means that nearly 60 percent of the Bay State’s eighth-graders are not proficient in reading. In the wacky world of education today, that qualifies as winning.
But what’s even more telling is the comparison between the NAEP scores and statewide assessment scores. Statewide assessments, by the way, are part of the “onerous” requirements of the evil No Child Left Behind law. Most states have satisfied this requirement by putting together their own standards and the tests to go with them.
A look at the NAEP tables and state assessment scores provides a startling revelation: most of the country’s students must live in Lake Wobegone—the majority of them are above average on state assessments, regardless how low their NAEP scores are! Massachusetts, with its 43 percent of eighth-graders proficient on the NAEP reading test, has a surprising 79 percent of eighth-graders meeting the state’s proficiency standards in that subject. How can this be—nearly 60 percent fail on one test and only 20 percent of the same students fail on another? I’ll let you figure it out on your own.
Now, I’m not saying that testing of any kind is the most accurate assessment of learning. But it’s a handy tool when used as a “physical, not an autopsy,” to determine issues, and classrooms, that need help. Those wise words about testing’s usefulness came from an educator who spoke more than ten years ago at a “No Excuses” conference, where educators from high-poverty/high-performing districts shared ideas.
This brings me back to my poor (as in poorly equipped in language skills) cashier. I don’t know how well she was educated, if she had been a good student, if she’d been to a good school, or if she was just having a bad day when words literally failed her as she attempted to describe my silly placemats. But I do know this: everyone involved in education must stop pointing the finger of blame for low scores on everything and everyone except those who are ultimately responsible for educating girls like her.
Another speaker at the “No Excuses” conference talked about his soul-searching after a year of teaching difficult students. He’d pointed the finger of blame for their lack of success, he said, at everyone but the one truly responsible for it—himself, their teacher.
We are never going to solve our educational problems if we continue to act as that teacher did before his personal epiphany. This is not a sweeping condemnation of teachers. If anything, I am fully in support of paying good teachers more than they currently make for the hard work they do. The key phrase, though, is “good teachers.” We have to be willing to identify them, reward them, and help those who aren’t as good. That means facing hard truths, and it means we must stop expecting less from those students who need the most from their schools.