Sarah McIntosh: Empty rhetoric on education

By Sarah McIntosh
Special to The Sun

Published: Sunday, August 3, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.

Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2014 at 1:49 p.m.

The words used by a group of school administrators from seven area counties, who gathered last month in Ocala for a mini-conference to discuss ways to improve school scores, amount to empty rhetoric.

Under the auspices of the Florida Department of Education, the differentiated accountability system is a statewide network designed to help districts improve in several key areas with one primary goal being to improve failing schools. Alachua County’s 40 schools had six “F” schools this year.

Mouthfuls of titles and acronyms show that administrators can come up with some words that have no meaning behind them. Differentiated accountability system? These are big words, so maybe these administrators who focus on statistics can pretend they mean something. What they mean to me is that it’s easy to hide behind big words and ignore the fact that for each number there is a child whose life and whose ability to learn, think and process information is being compromised.

Compromising the learning process may, in fact, be the goal. There may be more to the rhetoric than meets the eye, for if students actually learn to process information, they’d realize Florida’s current educational system is, and I won’t mince words, stupid.

The Sun’s July 15 article about this gathering clarified what was discussed. During this meeting of the minds, one word was dramatically missing: learning. The article mentions five points that were discussed, yet only one of these points includes the word “student” and only in terms of monitoring the progress of a student.

Currently, education is all about monitoring and accountability, which are great words on the surface, but in terms of the actual education of students these words take on a different meaning. Statistical averages, test scores and school grades measure absolutely nothing in regard to an individual child. A teacher or group of teachers who work closely with a child and who see the progress, or lack thereof, of that student along with the context of that child’s world outside of school and, hopefully, in conjunction with the child’s parent or caregiver, are much more capable of monitoring and accounting for a student’s grades.

Grading schools based on test scores that supposedly show the effectiveness of teachers is also worthless and wasteful. Owen Roberts, Alachua County’s new superintendent of schools, wrote in a July 20 column that his mission is to “solve the BIG problems of education to sustain our democratic way of life and ensure economic and national security.” As part of his vision, he asks the people of Alachua County to “be responsible for what happens to each child … (to) unite our efforts, resources, experiences and talents to sustain and improve our culture.” He also sees the challenge to create a culture of excellence in schools and commits to focus on student learning and achievement.

These all sound like good points, but his vision seems hampered by more BIG sounding ideas that ring empty in the so-called halls of learning. He shares his story of pulling himself out of poverty and overcoming illness to achieve the success he enjoys. While I applaud his drive, I notice that he mentions his mother who valued education. I must differ when he states “that the achievement of self-sufficiency through education is proof that personal drive, courage and persistence can overcome severe generational poverty.” The idea that just because something is part of a person’s experience is proof that it will work for everyone is a common fallacy.

Certainly there are those who find success despite horrible hardship, but others encounter numerous factors that may create barriers to learning that are almost impossible to get over. Not everyone gets the educational stimulus that Owens received. Most parents do value education, but many situations and factors can interfere with parents being able to participate in their child’s education.

BIG words such as many used in the aforementioned pieces raise questions about how invested the county and state educational administrators really are in the learning process for students, and how invested they are in listening to the teachers and families that deal every day with rules and regulations to satisfy a skewed perception of accountability.

Local economist David Denslow wrote a July 20 column that focused on grade inflation at the college level. The information he presents points to a common attitude carried into colleges by students who have come to expect higher grades. These same students have learned, throughout their school years, how to manipulate their way through tests and classes because they know that a teacher cannot afford to fail them as his or her job is constantly on the line based on student achievement.

Students are at least smart enough to know that the focus of schools is on numbers and money. Learning becomes a secondary, but necessary ordeal for some, while others try to make the best out of a system that doesn’t work. Schools at every level are continuing to churn out students who, sadly for all concerned, neither value learning, nor care to learn. Denslow finds that “students who expect high grades naturally think they are learning a lot.” He cites a survey of University of Florida students that found that less than half study more than 11 hours a week.

My experience teaching college-level classes is that students generally haven’t learned enough to even get to college let alone succeed in college classes, particularly when studying is viewed as incidental to learning. Denslow exposes the reality of the system when he writes “under UF’s funding model, resources are allocated to colleges largely according to the number of students taking their classes. If an introductory class gives mostly ‘A’s’ in exchange for little effort students quickly learn that. Enrollment soars. College revenue rises.”

Just as species in the wild have learned to adapt to rapidly changing environments, so has it taken only a few generations for students to learn that learning is secondary to money. If the state of Florida and its school administrators truly value learning, money would be spent on actually educating students instead of being wasted on conferences and gross payments to testing companies. Students could even learn the meaning of some big words and know when the words are meaningless. So we’re back to where we started: BIG but empty words.

Sarah McIntosh lives in Archer.