My daughter and thousands of other public school students are stressing over FCAT. Their predicament makes me think of a recent Washington Post essay by a Georgetown University student who eloquently describes how he went to one of the best public high schools in Washington, D.C, but in college felt totally unprepared to compete against his private school-educated classmates.
He blames his teachers and his schools for having to work twice as hard just to keep up with his peers. His teachers taught him how to memorize and regurgitate information, but not how to think.
The piece made me wonder. With all the test-taking my daughter and her Florida classmates do, will they feel the same way about their circumstances seven years from now?
My fifth grader attends a magnet school that earned a C grade. She performs at the top of her class. She was one of the students to benefit from the early years of state subsidized pre-K. She’s still passionate about school. She seems to have unlimited potential as she heads for middle school.
I teach college. My students used to be fifth graders, who went on to middle schools, then high school. Yet many of them managed to graduate without grasping the tools of the English language.
The saddest part is that performance drops as students get older. One study showed that among Florida students, reading proficiency peaked at 72 percent in the third grade and declined every year before bottoming out at 38 percent in the 10th grade. Fewer than 50 percent of Florida students are ready for college by the 12th grade. Our students are being less educated the more education they get. That’s a poor return on our investment.
While public schools have many hard-working and dedicated teachers, in my classrooms it’s easy to see who went to private schools and who were passed along by public school teachers insufficiently concerned about whether they learned.
Given the quality of the competition, even my best students will find it hard to compete if and when they decide to attend graduate school.
Here’s the rub. Can we say we have a merit-based society if a vast majority of our children, especially students of color, begin the race of life at a distinct disadvantage, feeling as if they can’t compete?
In a new report, the Brookings Institute, a progressive Washington think tank, advocates changing zoning laws to allow building affordable housing in affluent suburbs so that poor families aren’t always relegated to underperforming inner-city public schools. That solution is so simple, it would never happen.
It makes no sense for us to bemoan the failure of our students if they are being routinely failed by their teachers, their schools, and, too often, parents.
The FCAT is a reminder that some politicians recognized the problem, but experience shows it is the least imaginative solution. So we are left to bemoan teachers who are teaching to the test, students who are writing by formulas and learning by rote.
Who cares about critical thinking when the only thing that matters is getting a four or five on the FCAT?
That testing system is part of a laundry list of cookie-cutter fixes that were touted as miraculous cures for our very average education system. Sadly, quality isn’t a dominant gene in our political DNA. We can still change that.
We need a bottom up revolution that begins with one student, one teacher, one school, one parent, investing the time and effort, showing commitment so that our students – our children – can be well prepared for college, for life.
Andrew J. Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University and the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at andrewjskerritt.
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