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Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 2/2/2013

Reading, writing, ’rithmetic pale compared to critical thinking

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Ohio public schools love the bragging rights that go with top academic ratings. Being rated “excellent” or “excellent with distinction” by the state, based on test scores, allows districts to display quantitative proof of a job well done.

High passage rates, recognized by the state, are considered stellar accomplishments that schools are proud to publicize. Successful test scores are a salable commodity that districts use to pacify critics and pass levies.

But as a parent of public school students who doubles as a substitute teacher, I’ve seen the incongruity of high assessments and what students in excellent schools can’t do in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Being proficient in Ohio means passing tests.

It also means that astonishing levels of illiteracy advance from grade to grade and graduation. What too many eighth graders don’t know about constructing a simple sentence, let alone a comprehensive book report, is appalling.

What their younger peers can’t figure out in math, without counting on their fingers, is tragic. Framed recognition from the state of quantified academic results means nothing when students can’t think beyond guesswork.

It means nothing when graduating high school seniors can’t even begin higher education without remedial help in writing, reading, and math. But we’re a quick-fix society, impatient with long-term goals.

We keep tabs on our public-school investment with annual reports. Data tell all we need to know about how schools are performing.

But what good is an acceptable score card if Johnny can’t read or write to save his life, or compete with students around the globe? The competition is motivating its students to think critically, to innovate, to create, to apply what they learn.

We’re celebrating passing tests. God help us. Salvation may come in 2014, when the state experiments with a sea change in classroom teaching and testing.

Ohio is one of 45 states committed to teaching a new set of lessons called the Common Core standards. New tests are under development to measure what students will learn in math and English in what one educator called “an entire system reboot.”

Agreeing to use the new curriculum helped some states, including Ohio, win federal Race to the Top grants.

The idea behind the change is to make sure that students know material beyond rote memorization. A new approach allows teachers to change the way they teach, focus on fewer concepts with greater depth, and emphasize relevance and application.

It’s a laudable effort that might go a long way toward improving the quality of teaching and learning in public schools. But the execution and evaluation of Common Core standards will be a challenge.

Schools begin with sparse budgets. State funding is tight. When the federal seed money to initiate the tougher standards runs out, what then?

What happens to the common-sense vision that high school students will graduate from college and be career-ready? Without the means to pay for professional development or manage the shift to massive online testing, will Common Core become a passing fad?

Will attempts to raise the bar for students be met with political objections from far-right or far-left ideologues as too much or too little education reform? Will lousy report cards, exposing students’ shocking lack of progress under new criteria, be too much for parents and communities after years of phony accountability and excellent academic ratings?

And what of the social and economic variables that complicate classroom instruction from district to district? Can a core revolution in education, promising as it sounds, be equitably delivered to wealthy and low-income schools alike?

What tools will teachers have to tackle standardized curricula that are much more rigorous than today’s lesson plan? Will they still wind up teaching to a test to keep a job?

As schools across the country prepare to align themselves with Common Core curriculum and assessments, debate rages over the merits of the change and how it will work in an age of austerity.

But educators, consultants, lawmakers, and others can’t lose sight of the kids behind the standards, tests, and scores. Somewhere, somehow, students must master critical thinking.

It’s the only lifelong skill that will give them bragging rights to a better future.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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