Is it time to look at the role of standardized tests in schools?

Also: if teacher unions demand raises, they should say what to cut from education programs to pay for it

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogoThe rising tide against Common Core continues to obscure a growing, but still under discussed debate about the value and quality of standardized testing in our schools.

While it seems increasingly likely that a passing grade on the Keystone tests will not end up being a graduation requirement for students in the class of 2017 — and maybe for some years to come — the back and forth over Common Core, much of it nonsensical, is obscuring the question of whether we focus too much time and effort on standardized tests.

To get the Common Core stuff out of the way, two things: first off, this was the genesis of a bunch of Republican governors and the Chamber of Commerce, which as we all know are noted left-wing terrorist organizations. Yes, that was a joke. The fact that I have to explain that it’s joke may be even sadder. That Jeb Bush is the last ex-governor tuned presidential candidate with the cojones to admit it he supported it is even sadder.

And yes, Chris Christie, it’s nice to see your willingness to stand up for what you said you believed in matches both your ethics and skill set at somewhere below zero, which nicely matches your poll numbers.

I’m a little stunned that there seems to be so much pushback against the concept that kids starting in school in Arkansas are getting approximately the same education at the same grade level as kids in Nebraska. Much of the arguments seem to come from the ignorant argument of states rights and sovereignty  — pretty much wiped out by the 1787 U.S. Constitution, all but ended after the nullification crisis and finally the Civil War — but from time to time again pop up only to beaten down by the courts and common sense.

Again: big business wants decently educated kids for its work force, not kids either poorly taught or filled with bogus non-science based stuff like creationism, just because some backwards state wants to teach it. We’re 90 years past the Scopes Monkey Trial, maybe it’s time to act like it.

If you want to argue the details of what should be taught and how, fine. But the U.S. is rapidly becoming a joke in the rest of the world because of how we’ve gutted our educational system — but it does seem like a lot of people are working passionately to turn us into a lame second-rate power (poor education, crumbling infrastructure and overpowered police forces — just like all the best banana republics) in the ironic name of patriotism, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

But, moving onto standardized testing and what we should be talking about. The tests aren’t new — I remember taking the California Achievement Test in the 1970s. What has changed is the focus and stakes of testing. As the parent of two middle school students, I can say they lost an entire month of traditional education in April to standardized testing. Was it worth it as an evaluation tool to lose about 12% of the school year?

I don’t think so. I support some sort of testing to allow schools and teachers to be evaluated but wonder whether we’ve gotten too focused on testing and less so on education. Like other educational issues, such of homework and school schedules, we should be able to have a reasoned debate and come to a consensus. But….what are the odds of that?

* * *

If you’ve been following the story coming out of the Avon Grove School District, it should be a cautionary tale for districts around the county. As tax revenue continues to be limited by state law, state funding lagging behind percentages of a generation ago and of course the pension mess, some area school districts are well beyond cutting fat or even muscle now, but cutting bone. Avon Grove plans to lay off five gym teachers at its Intermediate School — meaning a drastic reduction in physical education time for the district’s third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders.

While it’s wrong on so many levels, I’m not sure that the district or its board of education have a lot of other choices. When the state says you can only bring in so much money, yet fixed costs increase by a higher rate, you eventually hit the point where you have to cut program and staff.

While this hasn’t happened in the county’s elite school districts yet, the ongoing budget crunches in Avon Grove, Octorara, Coatesville and elsewhere are a canary in a coal mine. With the likelihood of the state legislature repealing Act 1 and/or doing something about pensions about the same as my winning the GOP nomination for president (I’m the only one behind Christie in the polls), districts are going to have to be hyper careful on spending.

Which brings me to a series of ongoing teacher contract negotiations under way right now in the county.

It seems from here that the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state teachers’ union, is a lot more interested in making political points and scoring “model contracts” than looking out for students, or dare I say it, teachers. This is the same group that bears no small amount of blame for the pension mess, having been bought off into a lousy, shortsighted deal in 2001 with self-serving legislators.

I can think of a couple of districts where teachers at the top of the pay scale are making more than $100K a year — and yes, I don’t begrudge them that. I know how hard they work, I know how well they work, I know how much they care. In those districts, local union leaders have been making a big deal about those top of the scale teachers not getting pay raises in recent years.

Well, here’s the problem: the tax base is a limited number. So dollars become a real zero-sum game. Dollars given to top of the scale teachers — and don’t forget the entire costs, between pension (an extra 30 cents on every dollar has to go to pensions) and the usual costs of employees (payroll taxes and FICA and such) — are dollars taken away elsewhere.

So the question becomes this: how bad do you want a raise? Bad enough to cause less senior teachers to be laid off? Bad enough to see programs such as art and music and gym cut from our schools?

And while it’s easy for union leaders to point fingers at school boards and administrations, it’s not fair. Districts can’t magically make more money appear — even if they wanted to — and you can thank the state legislature and, yes, the PSEA for that.

You see, the PSEA has been woeful in supporting pro-education state legislative candidates — often backing some of the state legislators behind Act 1. They don’t put real money in races, don’t organize, canvass or do much of anything. And teachers in districts have largely sat on their hands (yes, I know of a few exceptions — but I’m talking about the rank and file) when it comes to election time. And of course, now they act surprised when things are the way they are.

I’d be a lot more willing to listen to PSEA and its various locals if they hadn’t been part of the problem for the past decade instead of part of the solution.

But again, I’d like to hear from teachers: what (or who) should be cut to pay for bigger pay raises?

* * *

Speaking of our no-account state legislature, I’d like to congratulate them on simultaneously raising taxes (in a stealthy way) and aggressively cutting public volunteerism, with a new law that takes effect July 1.

I’m speaking, of course, of the new fingerprinting requirement for youth volunteers. Aside from being likely in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it is an onerous, expensive and useless rule passed in panic in wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Ironically, it would have done not one thing to stop Sandusky.

From youth sports leagues to our schools, you will see volunteers, already in short supply, dwindle further. For those adults who step up, the extra $47 is an unreasonable burden, and yes, a tax increase. So — you may want to remind your local legislator of this and urge them to fix this, ASAP.

Without changes, we could literally see the end of parent chaperones on field trips — meaning higher costs (and yes, higher taxes) for school districts or doing away with field trips. For youth leagues, it could mean a drastic drop in coaching volunteers and those folks who volunteer at the snack shack. That will mean less kids on playing fields and more kids staring at their iPads.

This law was passed in a rush by a legislature seeking to do anything, no matter how lousy and pointless, to show they would protect kids from predators.

This needs to be fixed, now.

* * *

Just when you thought folks couldn’t be any more self absorbed, short-sighted — and lets be honest, moronic — I bring you the story of Upper Uwchlan and the county emergency radio tower.

The residents of the area — apparently about 1,100 of them — say building the 326-foot radio tower near Fellowship Road will lower property values. Okay, it’s going next to an existing 300-foot tower and a waste-water treatment plant — hardly the French Riviera. Of course, they managed to get a property appraiser to say that having a tower nearby would lower property values.

They didn’t, however, ask those same appraisers whether having houses burn down because emergency responders might be hampered or the fact that you’d have a lot of knuckleheaded neighbors would have an even bigger impact on property values. I’m betting it would.

In fact, as we’ve seen in other similar cases, the negative publicity has probably already driven down prices in the neighborhood.

What ever happened to doing things for the common good? This is a clear need and folks need to get over themselves.


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