COMMENTARY | The average American 15-year-old continues to fall further behind in the rankings of students from developed nations, with the U.S. now ranking 26 out of 34 industrialized countries in math skills, reports The Week. Of course, now pundits are in full-bore arguing how to fix the continued slide. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is championing his Common Core initiatives, arguing that toughening the curricula will whip our teens into shape, says the Department of Education. Others blame poverty, with Julia Ryan of The Atlantic reporting that the U.S. has lower test scores because its most impoverished students are less “resilient” than similar students in other nations.
Why are American students less resilient when faced with poverty and other struggles? Why are even our top students underperforming? Why, despite spending $115,000 per student per year, does the U.S. only fare about as well as Slovakia, which spends less than half that amount?
It’s all about culture.
We want the best test scores but refuse to glorify academic achievement among young people. Why should young people study hard if showing up gets you at least a C? Obviously, American teens will continue to test poorly as long as testing means little in terms of real-life achievement. Bomb a test? You get unlimited retakes. Still can’t get it? There will be extra credit opportunities. Still not getting it? Apply for various accommodations.
If you still cannot pass, many school districts will allow generous “credit recovery” options. Take watered-down quizzes on a computer to make up for the class you refused to do any work in. If you skipped too much school, you can go to Saturday school or night school to make up the missing hours. Toward the end of the year administrators are likely to start offering extra hours. “Get two recovery hours for the length of one!”
If all else fails, students and parents can fall back on the age-old tactic of blaming the teacher. “You can’t fail my kid because I didn’t know my kid was failing. If I had known I could have gotten my kid some help. My child’s bad grades are your fault!” Eager to avoid a confrontation or bad publicity, the school will likely be quick to search for a painless solution. At the very least, the teacher will receive endless pleas highlighting how terrible a failing grade will be for the student’s future. “_______ is planning to go to college next fall with all of his/her friends! Grandparents are already flying in for graduation!”
Do teens worry about not graduating? No. They know the system will coddle them. In the end, we have allowed our teens to be lazy, so of course they won’t test well!
And we know this, don’t we? Deep down we do. But a change will hurt; will be a punch to the gut. Some kids will have to fail, perhaps even many kids. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Toughening up the grading system and making it mean something to earn a high school diploma again will hurt.
We don’t do anything because we don’t want that punch to the gut. Instead, we choose to bleed taxpayers to throw money at policies and programs that do comparatively little to help the problem. Spread the pain so much nobody wails. Better everyone chip in extra on property taxes than allow more students to not graduate, right? Spending millions on new technology in classrooms is much better PR than flunking a teen who can cry to the cameras.