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On Point

Time for Some Pushing Back

By Robert Rotz

My mother taught sixth grade in a public elementary school in Pennsylvania. In fact, I attended the elementary school where she taught—which had its drawbacks. I found this out as soon as second grade, when I was marched from the school cafeteria directly to my mother to explain certain misbehavior on my part. But as the son of a teacher, I grew up with an appreciation of the work outside of the school day that goes into teaching, and with an understanding that the level of compensation has not been commensurate with the level of entrusted responsibility.  As for my father, he only got to go to college after his service in WWII through the GI bill. He went on to become a professor in a state university in Pennsylvania. He conveyed to me an appreciation of what government can do when it steps forward to help those from families with little money further their educational dreams.

I’ve been in Virginia since 1982 and have two children who have been in our public schools since kindergarten. They are now both in high school. I have also had the opportunity through my work at JLARC (Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission) to meet numerous school staff members and observe classes in different parts of the state. All this has given me a further appreciation of the challenging work done by dedicated Virginia teachers. 

I saw the cover story for the April edition of this magazine, about how public education seems to be under siege and teachers are being scapegoated for its perceived shortcomings. I agree: While there is room for improvement in education, as with anything, public schools and teachers are doing a far better job under difficult circumstances than they are given credit for by some.
As we move forward, I hope that VEA will be able to push back hard and with success against the unfair criticisms of public education.

There’s a need to push back against those who look at education today through nostalgic, rose-tinted glasses. They seem to forget the progress made over many decades, nationally and in Virginia, in expanding educational access, and the major increases in the level of education attained by our youth.

There’s a need to push back against the use of NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) “proficiency” statistics as weapons, without an understanding of their meaning or credibility. NAEP proficiency is being used to create an overblown sense of “public education in crisis” because some think a crisis climate will lead to more funding or some pet reforms. Others point to NAEP results as justification for shifting our trust and our priorities from public to private schools. Regardless of motivation, false impressions are created and it isn’t helpful.

There’s a need to push back against critics who paint a broad brush criticism of our schools based on international test results and comparisons. To say that the less-than-ideal performance on some of these tests is the fault of public education, you’d have to think that we’re at or close to the top in indicators of child well-being. We’re not. For example, of 25 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, depending on available data, we’ve ranked 21st for our high percentage of children living in single-parent families; 22nd in children reporting less than 10 books in the home; 20th in percentage eating breakfast each day; 23rd in children eating their main meal with their parents; and 20th in an overall ranking of child well-being.

There’s also a need to push back against going too far down the path of standardizing the education of all children, and of viewing education as fundamentally about competition against others, whether against countries or each other. One child’s knowledge gain is not another child’s knowledge loss. I like the Constitution of Virginia’s statement on education in Article I, Section 15. It doesn’t advocate for standardizing what all children should be taught, or educating to compete. It says that we educate because “free government rests, as does all progress, upon the broadest possible diffusion of knowledge.” It also encourages the Commonwealth to “avail itself of those talents which nature has sown so liberally among its people by assuring the opportunity for their fullest development by an effective system of education.”

In this vision, we don’t mostly look to what adults in national and state departments of education decide is important and must be taught, or to what they and test-makers think all children should know. We also look to the varying aptitudes, interests, and talents among children, and work toward their fullest development.

Hard work to bring about and sustain an educational system capable of meeting the lofty constitutional challenge of Article 1 still lies ahead.

Rotz retired last year as a senior division chief at the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the oversight agency of the Virginia General Assembly. He served JLARC for 30 years.

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