Student achievement

Parents, community must do their share

“Things educators could say but don’t,” a post on a Washington Post blog, has been making the rounds on email and Facebook.

The author is Robert Bligh, who is former general counsel of the Nebraska Association of School Boards. Bligh is not a fan of legislated school reform, specifically No Child Left Behind but extending as far back as Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

At the beginning of his career 37 years ago, he says, “I began to suspect that K-12 teachers and their schools were being held responsible for things that were completely beyond their reach. Most of what I have observed since about K-12 education has supported that suspicion.”

To reformers (although it’s an important message for all to hear), Bligh says, “Academic achievement gaps, robust and intractable, are well established long before the first day of kindergarten. Those gaps are not caused by teachers and cannot be fixed by teachers.”

To parents, he says, “If you effectively raise your children before you send them to school, we can teach most of them. If you do not, we cannot.”

That’s harsh, but Bligh does not advocate giving up on children. At the end of the blog, he says, “I am convinced that the only people I want to be in charge of a K-12 classroom are those who believe that all children can be educated.”

But holding educators responsible for creating the same results in children who start at widely divergent levels is not logical. Such a goal often diverts resources from their most productive use, and it also gives the public a skewed image of the success of children, teachers and schools.

Teachers can, and do, help children overcome great disadvantages, but it makes no sense to claim that other factors in a child’s life matter little. They matter a great deal, even in adult workplaces. If teachers were more important than parents, kindergarteners could thrive at boarding school. If healthy food, a safe place to sleep and stable adult role models who encouraged success didn’t matter, far fewer young people would be trapped in the same socioeconomic strata that their parents inhabit.

Bligh points out that educational strategy and public policy are two different commodities. Educators must do their best to teach the children in their classes — those who are desperately disadvantaged as well as those whose parents are affluent, educated and able to participate effectively in their children’s education. Standards are essential.

When the results are in, though, the public and policy makers must be willing to assess honestly all the reasons for success or failure.

That matters, especially, when voters are basing their decisions on a school bond on a district’s test scores. A fair standard might be whether students are leaving school better prepared for life than their parents are.

Student achievement cannot be correlated exactly with buildings, old or new, decrepit or dazzling. No one has claimed that it can, so anti-3B arguments debunking that claim are disingenuous at best. Re-1 is not a rich district. It must use its resources wisely.

Leveraging taxpayer funds to build a new high school for less than half price makes good fiscal sense. Refusing to do so because not every student in the district has been raised to grade level is a very poor strategy for correcting that problem.