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Public Schools: Improve performance by dumping low-scoring students

Last night on the drive home, I was listening to a talk show with a bunch of government wonks talking about schools and how to “fix them”. In almost an hour of “happy speak”, there were only two comments made that actually had any meaning.

First, one of the panelists suggested that because “no child left behind” in the only true measure of how successful a school is, the schools should drop any teaching that doesn’t ensure the kids will pass the tests. He made it clear that he was being sarcastic. The only problem is, this is exactly what a lot of schools are doing. Since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) began, many of the public schools have tailored their curriculum to match the exams – just as many high schools used to tailor their curriculum to the SATs. Another of the wonks, who was on the state committee that sets curriculum – admitted that one of the major deciding factors on curriculum design was the impact it would have on the NCLB testing, because funding depended on the kids scores on the tests. Interesting to see this admission of free-market capitalism in the public schools. The only problem is that the students ability to pass a standardized test does absolutely nothing to prepare them for the real world……

The second comment, also made in jest, was that the schools should simply encourage their worst students to drop out before the NCLB tests are given. By dumping the bad students, the scores would be inflated. What is truly ironic, is that many schools are actually already doing this, and have been for years. True, most schools are probably not actively encouraging students to drop out – after all, drop out rates are one of the minor factors used in measuring school success. However, many schools are extremely passive when it comes to retaining students that are under achievers. A student who is an athlete is almost guaranteed all of the help, special consideration, and assistance needed to make sure (s)he stays in school. Special tutoring with teachers, exceptions from assignments that interfere with practice or games, waivers for requirements, and administratively forced grade inflation are all extremely common among athletes.

A student who is at the same academic level as an athlete, but is bored, uninterested, or for any reason detached from academia may get a bit of special attention – usually a battery of tests to see if the child can be tagged as a “special needs”. If the tag sticks, the kid falls into a whole different category, and no longer has a negative effect on the schools overall performance measures – after all, it wouldn’t be fair to include the test results of  a special needs kids in with all the others. Besides, special needs kids bring more dollars per head than a “normal” kid. If the label doesn’t stick, the kid may get an occasional lecture form a guidance counselor, some letters to the kid’s parents, but not a whole lot more. When the kid drifts away from school into something else, the standard reaction is to try and get the kid into a GED program. Once again, this moves the kid off of the roster of students that the school is accountable for.

So, what we are left with is a system that lets over-achievers do what they will, panders to athletes, and encourages under achievers into avenues that relieves the school of responsibility for their education – or at least moves them into a category that has little effect on the schools performance metrics.

None of this should be a surprise – our culture has fallen into the habit of making exceptions for athletes, and measuring a school by testing will ensure that he schools not only teach to the test, but find ways to keep the underperformers from being counted on the test. There have actually been cases where schools have separated their poor students during testing, and then “lost” their tests. Like any government run institution, the schools are really set up to ensure that they will continue to exist, regardless of their effectiveness. Too many people are employed by the schools to allow them to go away (they have already failed, so I won’t use that word), and too many parents rely on the 6 hours a day of “free” day care their kids get at “school”. Until we, as a country, are willing to truly address the issues in the schools, there is no hope of changing the public school system to something that truly prepares students for the real world. In order to do that, we have to admit that most students should succeed, some will move through the programs more slowly, and some will simply fail. Until we are willing to acknowledge that some people are simply incapable of being truly productive citizens, we will continue to lower the standards at our schools to ensure that those people can “pass”.

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