Left-Hand, Left Behind

Ken Gorrell

by Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

Has somebody ever said something to you that hit you full in the face like the wind coming off a freshly manured field? I experienced that sensation last week while attending a local “Town Hall on Education,” hosted by Reaching Higher NH.
The meeting started off as expected. Though it claims to be nonpartisan, from their “About Us” webpage, it’s clear that Reaching Higher is left-of-center. But the host presented an even-handed summary of recent state and federal education legislation. When the two panelists were introduced, however, the meeting lurched noticeably to the Left.

I didn’t mind the recently-passed bill funding all-day-kindergarten being referred to derisively as “Keno-garten” (as if a funding mechanism based on voluntary contributions is worse than one based on forced taxation), or even the state being criticized for “downshifting” education costs to taxpayers, as if Concord gets its revenue from magic elves. But when a Democrat state representative insisted on calling our education scholarship program a “voucher” system that (cue the ominous music) gives tax dollars to religious schools, I knew I was behind enemy lines.
After an hour of being told how wonderful but underfunded – or at least, inequitably funded – our public school system is, I asked the two panelists what the drop-out and non-proficiency rates were for the Laconia system. They didn’t know. I asked because those students are being poorly served by a system that pours nearly $15,000 a year into preparing them for the adult world. The latest data for Laconia: 10.9% drop out; non-proficiency rates for 11th graders in reading, writing, and math are 24%, 37%, and 75%, respectively.
The focus on and testing for college- and career-readiness ignores the needs of a sizable number of students. When I asked a panelist about those students whose academic abilities place them well to the left on the bell curve, I received the odoriferous answer: He didn’t believe in the bell curve. This educator didn’t believe in applying the “normal” distribution, a well-established concept in statistics, to students. His “all students can succeed” claptrap may make him feel better, but ignoring inherent limitations is cruel.
I haven’t been in the dream-crushing business since my days as a Navy officer. When a sailor’s sense of self interfered with the ship’s mission, a personal recalibration was in order. While teachers should be inspirational, encouraging students to reach higher, that encouragement should not ignore the real world, where failure to “make the grade” is not only an option, for some it is a probability. Expectations matter, but so does ability.
Academically, most of us occupy the middle of the bell curve, but some are further to the left, closer to the break-point between success and failure in life. By focusing so much on standards a sizable percentage of students can’t meet, our public education system is failing to provide them with the skills needed to live independently, make a living at an attainable job, pay the bills, and participate in their communities.
Public schools produce many young adults who earn only debt, not a degree, from their college experience. Some must pay for remedial courses to learn high school-level material. Some newly-minted college grads first encounter real-world standards during the interview for the job they didn’t get. But the kids our system truly leaves behind are the ones represented by the dropout and non-proficiency rates.
For a variety of reasons – IQ, socio-economic, family stresses – some students will never meet college- or career-ready standards. That’s not a moral judgement; it’s simply a fact. It’s time to take those kids out of the current curricula and testing regimen. Some of the 115 out of 152 students who started 11th grade in Laconia in 2013 unable to demonstrate proficiency in mathematics could be better served with a program aimed at providing them with the basic body of knowledge for independent living. Relevant proficiency is more valuable than irrelevant non-proficiency.
The academics of this program would be built around key life skills, such as a basic understanding of civics, current events, and history; the mathematics required for personal finance and trade-skill jobs; fundamental scientific concepts; home economics; law and order; and society’s expectations for adults.
Teaching and testing at levels some kids can’t reach, covering material they will never use, is a waste of time and resources. Worse, the kids know it. They vote with their feet by dropping out or tuning out. Encouraging students to reach higher is the right thing to do, but only if what they are reaching for is meaningful to their lives and realistically within their grasp.

Ken can be reached at kengorrell@gmail.com