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It's Not the Pandemic, Stupid

I heard another hand-wringing report this morning about failing school children. All fingers pointed to the pandemic as the cause, because that’s such an easy scapegoat.

But this calamity started back in the 90’s when Virginia mandated the Standards of Learning tests and was later exacerbated by the ill-fated No Child Left Behind mandate from the federal government. It was a disaster in the making, whether or not a pandemic or any other disaster added to the mix.

Actually, I was kind of excited when the first SOL tests came out 30 years ago. Finally, those in power would see that my students really did know something- if the test was a fair measurement of their knowledge.

Of course, it never was.

My first group of 11th grade test-takers passed, all of them. And only a handful of teachers with 100% passing existed in the state. So of course, the governor put together a task force to find out why we were so successful.

“Teachers who know their material and set high standards” were the key to success, the fact-finders said.

Who knew?

Truth was, most teachers did okay, even though they were testing blindly with a test compiled by the state department. Because truth also is that teachers are some of the most adaptable and resilient group of employees on earth.

But in Virginia, there was also an undercurrent of people in power who wanted to undercut the public school system and watch teachers fail. Private schools were on the rise, because religion and political thinking could run rampant with no government interference. The dawn of the SOL test happened during the Allen/Gilmore era.

So the tests took on twists and turns that even Annie Sullivan herself couldn’t follow: taking away teachers’ ability to see the test, not allowing teachers to test their own students, disseminating tests with obvious errors, asking questions on the test that didn’t align with the blueprints from the state, and, well, you get the drift.

At the same time, these tests became the sole focus of the classroom, not a by-product as originally intended. The only curriculum was that mandated by the tests, which was mandated by the state. These test were and are still primarily multiple choice, throwing real upper level thinking skills out the window and replacing them with regurgitation and recitation.

For 30 years.

So when the pandemic came along, it only manifested the underlying problems already in existence for most of Virginia’s students: an inability to think and reason. They couldn’t create, evaluate, and analyze: they could only recite. The infection had been slowly growing for two generations. The pandemic just picked the scab.

Self-motivating and independent thinking that pandemic schools mandated for at-home learning were skills never taught to those students who needed to use them. Couple that with a fear to fail students because of untested teaching methods, and well, you can see why students got farther behind than they already were.

As the leaders in education wring their hands and look for solutions to children testing way below grade level, they might start by throwing NCLB and SOL tests out. This would save a boat load of money each year, money that could be used to pay teachers a respectable salary.

Unfortunately for education, however, the low pay and lack of respect given to those on the front line have caused an exodus of quality teachers. And ultimately, the teachers have to fix the problem, not the overpaid administrators or the under-qualified captains of education.

I doubt it can be fixed, not with the mindless leadership that seems to run rampant in state houses today. Legislators would rather ban quality books, hunt under desks for CRT, and use the bulletin board police to find teachers in violation of state code.

It took us 30 years to get into this mess; it will take more than a campaign slogan to get us out. And it will take a governor much more educated about public schools than the one we have in Virginia.

Because, you see, parental intervention isn’t the problem. Critical thinking is. And we haven’t taught that for 30 years.

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