May 10, 2009
A call to action to improve school performance
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett calls the situation facing Indiana's schools urgent. He has ample reason to be alarmed.
When the state last week issued its annual rankings of public schools, nearly half of them landed either on academic probation or the watch list, the two lowest ratings. Two-thirds of school districts were cited for poor performance.
Many educators bristle at the federal government's rating system, largely pegged to standardized test scores. The state model, they say, better reflects reality. Yet, this year the two ranking systems produced similar results.
Bennett, who took office in January, described the poor ratings as a "call to action,'' not just for teachers and students, but for the entire state.
Yet, educators haven't been exactly sipping coffee in the break room while their students slip out the backdoor. Nor have government, business and community leaders ignored the challenges facing schools across the state.
Taxpayers continue to pour tremendous resources into the educational system -- K-12 education is the largest single recipient of state dollars, and that doesn't take into account all of the federal and local tax money devoted to schools. And the pressure on teachers and students to improve has never been more intense.
Not all of the signs are discouraging. The graduation rate is increasing. More students are attaining at least base-level mastery of key skills.
But much more work remains, and Bennett is right when he insists that the entire state must push for better results.
What needs to change? To start, the adults in charge need to find a way to work together. That means cooling the more heated rhetoric, setting aside tired arguments that go nowhere and placing on hold agendas that don't directly contribute to better student achievement.
Hoosiers also need to re-evaluate their priorities. Sports consume outsized portions of money, time and attention in too many districts. Do high school football players really need to compete on artificial turf in multimillion-dollar stadiums? Are Olympic-size swimming pools necessary at a time when districts are eliminating teaching positions?
It's not that sports don't have a proper place in schools; athletics can contribute to an overall climate of excellence and achievement. But too often the pursuit of glory on the field or court has been allowed to push aside striving for excellence in the classroom.
Bennett and others also will have to battle a culture that historically has not placed enough emphasis on education. For decades, one of Indiana's greatest strengths, its manufacturing base, shielded Hoosiers from a growing reality: Without a solid education, workers are unlikely to earn enough money to sustain families.
As manufacturing has eroded, Indiana has been unable to create enough good jobs to keep wages from declining relative to other states. One result of that trend is that the gulf between well-educated workers and those with fewer skills is broadening. The most realistic way for Hoosiers to start catching up is to significantly deepen the skills of is work force. And that must come through better education, starting in early childhood and continuing through college.
Has progress been made? Yes. Is the current state of education acceptable? Not even close.
Urgency is indeed warranted, not just in every classroom but in every home in every community.