Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Reading And Writing And.... ?

Awhile back I wrote a curmudgeonly little piece on the abandonment of the liberal arts curricula in today's schooling. Upon further review, I want to amend it to include the apparent abandonment of education of almost any kind.

Two different brouhahas have surfaced in the last few weeks in this state (Washington) that just make me shake my head about the state of education today. This state has a pretty good reputation for its intellectual habitues, from companies like Microsoft and Boeing, to renowned institutions like the University of Washington and Washington State University.

A few months ago, the first outcry began filtering out as a result of the decision last year to make passage of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) mandatory for high school seniors to graduate. This test has been given for years, but was more of a monitoring guideline for the various Boards of Education to compare against. The WASL gives pass/fail grades in four categories: Reading, Math, Writing, and Science. The WASL is given every year from 3rd through 8th grade, and then in the 10th grade. The passing grade is based on meeting or exceeding that particular grade. Anyways, last year the legislature (or the WA state Board of Education, I don't know which) passed a measure that said that by the time the current freshman class graduated high school, they needed to be at least at a 10th grade level in the four WASL categories.

There were the usual complaints, valid or not (that's a different discussion), about cultural biases in the construction of the WASL, but the feces didn't hit the fan until a couple of months ago, when the first wave of WASL scores were released. Now bear in mind a couple of things. First of all, if a child fails the WASL at any point, he/she can make it up. As far as I can tell, in fact, they can make it up as many times as becomes necessary. AND, they only need to retake the portion of the test they failed, not the entire set. AND, they have a number of free tutoring options available to all students. A month or so ago, a committee was set up to actually repeal the requirement that students pass the math portion of the WASL before graduating. As I write this, they're still discussing this option.

Before writing this, I checked the "Washington State Report Card" put out by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to see what those WASL scores have been. As of the '05-'06 school year, the statewide scores were: Reading: 82%, Writing: 79.8%, Math: 51%, and Science: 35%. Yes, 65% of the Washington state sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined were scoring below 10th grade level in science, and almost half were below 10th grade math levels. No wonder parents are panicking.

And then came the kicker (at least for me). This past fall and winter have been particularly nasty for most of the state weather-wise. This fall there were floods in large portions of the western half of the state (the part that includes Seattle, Tacoma and all their suburbs), and this winter we've already had snow and ice storms exceeding anything the natives have had here for many years. The number of days many school districts had to close this school year already has made it impossible for those children to log as many hours in school as they are required to by law, without either extending the school year or the hours per day in class. The same children who reveled in those days off are now, of course, incensed at the prospect of having to go to school into June and in some cases even longer. Their disappointment I understand. They're kids. It's the indignant parents I'm not sure I get. A good many of the same parents who insist their children shouldn't have to be held accountable to an actual learning standard are insisting they be taught more, faster, and with less class time than ever.

It's a Catch-22 of classic proportions: Everything is automated and computerized and hand-held, to the point that math done in one's head is about as necessary a skill as being able to weave one's own sweater on a hand loom. On the other hand, the skills that need to be in place to put together those automations and computerizations and miniaturizations, are being cut off at the base. We're creating a smaller and smaller sub-class of science and math professionals to operate the next phase of whatever area of industrial or scientific revolution we are in for. It's a bizarre reverse Darwinism: Survival of the Thickest.

In the heyday of the intellectual, people like Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft) Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple), Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore (Intel), and hundreds more, made computer-related breakthroughs by pioneering developments in math and science that pushed the envelope for their field of study. And made lots of money too. Will the culled and cultivated intellectuals eventually come out on top again? Or will the pyramid be inverted? Will the brightest minds in math and science be nothing more than money-making tools for the business elite?

If you're young, and a prodigy (i.e., you can do multiplication tables without using your toes), the world may well be your oyster as you get older. If you don't wind up on some future assembly line of developers for someplace like Microsoft, designing the operating system for Windows 2020, in a room, ironically enough, without windows.