by Sen. Doug Whitsett (R- Klamath Falls)
The United States public education system is failing too many of our children. Just a few decades ago, our nation was an international leader in education achievement. Today the U.S. Organization for Economic Cooperative Development ranks our K-12 public education system 14th among its 34 members in reading, 17th in science and an even more dismal 25th in mathematics.
Moreover, Oregon K-12 students rank about 40th in combined English, reading and math skills among the 50 states. Our high school graduation rate is tied for the fourth worst in the nation at 68 percent. More than 40 percent of those Oregon students that graduate from high school, and apply to a state community college, require remedial education in English, math, or both in order to qualify for basic entry level community college 101 courses.
Although I am not a professional educator, I am able to understand that Oregon’s K-12 academic performance is near the bottom of rankings in a nation that is failing to adequately educate its youth. Numerous attempts have been made to reorganize the State K-12 education enterprise during the nine years that I have served in the Oregon Senate. Reasons for our failure to perform are endlessly discussed, rationalized and excused. Blame is laid on too little money, too much administration, classes that are too large, too little teacher preparation, inadequate facilities and any combination of additional complaints.
The sad fact is that no one is willing to be accountable and to take responsibility for the failing education system. I believe that one salient reason why public education achievement has declined so precipitously is because we have so sharply diminished our expectations from our students as well as from the professionals who instruct them.
I graduated from Crook County High School more than 50 years ago. I can still remember the names and even see the faces of those many teachers who fairly demanded strict discipline and performance. I am eternally grateful for their dedication and efforts to ensure that we achieved proficiency in their courses. Conversely, I can remember neither the names, nor the faces, of those instructors that graded by attendance, who wanted to be “friends”, and who appeared to care little for our academic achievement.
Behavioral and mental discipline is the cornerstone of successful education. It is the single management tool that is most important in determining the academic outcomes in classrooms, schools and entire districts. Discipline establishes education quality and drives academic achievement.
I am thankful for those teachers who forced us to memorize English grammar, U.S. history, and the math tables. It is my understanding that much of that Rote memorization is no longer an expectation in many school districts. I believe that failure to require education fundamentals is a major cause of our national decline in education achievement. The basic education building blocks of reading, writing and arithmetic continue to be practiced in other nations such as China and India whose students place near the top of the international rankings.
I will never forget the arrival of Mr. Guy Delamater during my eighth grade year at Powell Butte Elementary School. He immediately recognized that the seventh and eighth graders in his classroom had not learned our math tables. He did not wring his hands or blame others for our ignorance of basic math.
Soon we each had four sets of math flash-cards to take home. We did nothing in his classroom for three weeks except to study math and to compete to see which of us could learn it faster and better. His expectation was for every student to be able to perform two column addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in our heads on demand. He stressed the pressure of competition and we thrived on it. Within three weeks we were virtually all performing to his standards.
To master true expertise in any subject requires constructive criticism and sometimes painful feedback. The fact of the matter is that failure is a necessary and integral part of learning. We learn critical thinking ability primarily through failing and trying again and again until we get it right. And in my opinion, nothing in the education experience creates more self-esteem and self-pride than overcoming failure. The single most important quality sought by prospective employers is critical thinking ability.
Many very intelligent students unfortunately never reach their academic potential. They are too often praised for their intellect but never challenged to perform to their ability. The experience of being allowed to slide through their education unchallenged is too often continued in their post-education life.
Other less gifted students develop creative genius through the exercise of grit and self-motivation. They develop a work ethic that enables them to surpass the education achievement of more gifted students and to thrive in post-secondary education. The second most desirable trait requested by employers is a well-developed work ethic.
Modern teachers are encouraged to praise students for virtually everything they do that could be construed as positive. Unwarranted praise tends to diminish the competitive edge that is so important in the post-education work force. Moreover, I believe that unwarranted praise is counterproductive to education achievement because it really deters incentive, discourages the development of a strong work ethic and generally makes student education weaker.
Praise delivered for any level of effort soon becomes meaningless and counterproductive. It should be reserved for hard work and the completion of successful effort. The receipt of praise for a job well done builds self-confidence, self-esteem and pride in work ethic.
Finally, learning to deal with stress is an integral part of an appropriate and complete education. We all know that post-education life does not treat all people equally or fairly. Students should not be isolated from stressful situations; conversely, they must be exposed to stress and taught how to work through and cope with tense and hectic situations. To do less is to fail to prepare them for the certainty of life.
From my perspective, we have failed to develop accountability at all levels of Oregon’s K-12 education enterprise.
Voters have generally neglected to recruit and support school board members with appropriate business and education experience, and to hold them accountable to establish and maintain good management practices.
School Boards have too often failed to select school administrators with adequate business acumen and to hold them accountable for effective management practices. It is really the administrators who are responsible for establishing behavioral and academic discipline, maintaining sound management practices, and demanding excellent student outcomes.
Too many modern teachers fail to present themselves as professionals and to perform up to their career potential. I believe teachers must hold students to much higher expectations. They should establish student behavior and work ethic by setting the example.
Too many parents simply fail to prepare their children for school both in behavioral training and in teaching the incredible value of an education. I believe that parents must make the time to be involved in the management of both their schools and their school boards. Our schools are the heart and soul of our communities and they should be treated as such.
Students should be held accountable for both disciplinary and academic failure by their parents, teachers and administrators. Few students are incapable of learning. Our state and communities are making enormous ongoing investments in K-12 education. Students must be held accountable to make the academic achievement that we are all paying for.
Finally, our state legislature must focus on defining and addressing the actual causes of our academic achievement failure. Too often our treatments are directed toward political cover through meaningless reorganization and implementation of untried flavor of the month programs.
We know that basic K-12 education worked for us in the past and that the basics continue to work for other nations in the present. Why not return to what we know is effective and restore value to our once proud public education enterprise.