According to the Oregon Board of Education, the ability to read, write or calculate is not necessary to receive a high school diploma—at least until 2029, according to The Oregonian. The State Board of Education decision was unanimous.
Critical Analysis Run Amok
The Board’s reasoning is straight out of the critical theory playbook.
“[L]eaders at the Oregon Department of Education and members of the state school board said requiring all students to pass one of several standardized tests…was a harmful hurdle for historically marginalized students, a misuse of state tests and did not translate to meaningful improvements in students’ post high school success.”
One State Board member is Vicky López Sánchez. Her full-time position is as a dean at the local Portland Community College. She argues that students will still need to take the tests; they just won’t have to pass them. To expect them to pass is, in her opinion, unjust.
“The only thing we are suspending is the inappropriate use of how those assessments were being used. I think that is in the best interest of Oregon students.”
A National Issue
Unfortunately, Oregon is not alone. According to The Daily Signal’s Tony Kinnett, Ohio made a similar decision in 2010. Math proficiency has dropped substantially. Mr. Kinnett also mentioned that “school districts in California, Michigan, New York, and South Carolina have tried similar approaches—lowering academic standards and expectations in the name of ‘racial equity.’ The results are unsurprising: “No district that has sought to cut academic standards has seen an improvement in academic performance.” Baltimore City Schools have also “relaxed its math standards several times since the early 2010s.” The result should be sobering. In thirteen Baltimore high schools, no students passed the state’s math exam in 2023.
That is not a misprint—even the most intelligent student in thirteen Baltimore schools is not “proficient” in math.
From the student’s perspective, the reasons for such poor performance are easy to determine. It has little to do with ethnicity, race or economic standing. The students don’t do the work because they don’t see any point in it. Like many adolescents, they have little comprehension of the lifelong consequences of those decisions. That is what the adults who run the school are supposed to provide.
From the point of view of teachers and administrators, the picture is considerably more complex. They are told to seek a noble but unattainable goal—that every student will succeed in every subject.
The Search for Painless Learning
In a sane world, the record of schools like those in Baltimore would be clear proof that something is horribly wrong. One would expect that math “experts” from all over the nation would come together to find a solution. Unfortunately, the experts are out of ideas. Since the dawn of “New Math” in the mid-sixties, they have tried to rejigger instruction to find a way that produces perfect results with minimal effort on the part of the students.
The same thing is true of reading, except that the options are limited to two approaches—phonics or “whole language.” The whole language folks argue that phonics are slow, repetitive and mechanical. Therefore, the kids lose interest. The phonics people counter that the whole language method forces the kids to think in complex ways beyond a young child’s mental development.
The unspoken truth is that learning is difficult. After all, if children developed all of the skills that they need automatically, there would be no need for schools. Traditionally, the teacher’s task was to break down the complex concepts into less painful parts that students could grasp in a reasonable amount of time.
However, children are not learning machines. Some soak up a particular lesson very quickly, others need more time, and some will never be able to master it. Complicating the process still further is that some students may learn rapidly in one subject area and more slowly in others. A class of twenty-five first graders is not really a class, but twenty-five unique sets of educational strengths and weaknesses.
In the ideal world, individual children would have individual teachers focused only on their particular needs and abilities. However, that would be ruinously expensive.
So, part of the teacher’s job is to figure out how to meet the needs of all of these students simultaneously. Until recent years, the usual solution was to teach to the middle, making slight ad hoc adjustments for the fast and slow learners. This aspect of the job requires compassion, a sense of knowing where the students are in relationship with the material being taught, and sufficient care to help them bridge the gap between their level and the rest of the class.
Compassion and Rigor—A Difficult but Necessary Balance
However, compassion in the school setting can also be horribly misplaced. It needs to be balanced by rigor, the requirement that the work must, indeed, be done. While many school teachers and officials give lip service to rigor, in a pinch, they will choose compassion every time. Where compassion is a warm and cozy emotion, rigor makes students and parents uncomfortable and defensive. However, unless the school maintains some level of rigor, it stops being a school. It becomes an emotional first-aid station.
An endless supply of “second chances” does not strengthen their recipients. Indeed, they convince evildoers that they can string together an equally endless string of reprehensible acts.
Such misplaced compassion abounds in the nation’s schools. This emotion motivates the Oregon Board of Education. It also spawns a level of ignorance that many students will never escape and sentences these illiterate students to a lifetime of ignorance and despair—all in the name of compassion.
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