Viewpoint: A different perspective on student performance oo 0) (JO
by Joseph A. Cattano, Ph.D Past President, Freeport Board of Education
In my past capacity as a member of the Board of Education and my current role as a member of the Budget Advisory Committee, there is little question that I have been exposed to, or more precise, immersed in an seemingly endless dialogue regarding student performance. So many concerned people in communities across Long Island struggle for a rational understanding as to why so many of our students appear to perW form at a level that is less than desired, particularly on mandated tests. With few exceptions, we know that our children are capable of learning. We are confident that we provide our children with both the opportunity and facilities necessary for learning to occur. So what has happened? Or, more to the point - what is not happening? Most important, what steps need to be considered in order to resolve this seemingly intractable problem? Some feel that the solution resides in testing. Testing has become a panacea of sorts. It seems that the "powers that be" on the state and federal level cannot get beyond their obsessive preoccupation with test scores, cohort performance, etc. I suggest that it creates the "illusion of doing something profound." Compulsively, with a sense of desperation, we now must test, test, and then test some more. It is as if endless testing is a type of.religious rite designed to confer on us some bastardized academic Holy Grail. Armed with this chalice of arcane data and scores,- our teachers will magically bring about remarkable improvement in the performance of our students. Good heavens, it was harrowing enough for students and teachers alike when all they had to contend with were the state-mandated fourth and eighth grade tests, along with the endless Regents exams. Now, mandated testing is being expanded to all grades! I am fearful that if this pattern continues unabated, how far away is testing in utero? There are others who champion the need for spending more dollars per pupil. It is "as if increased spending is a financial tonic of sorts that will cure the educational performance problems that plague so many communities across our state and nation: be it known that Freeport is not alone with the problem of meeting state standards. Actually, in recent years our community has witnessed some noticeable improvement in many areas of academic performance. But before becoming even slightly complacent, I must caution us: we have miles to go before we sleep." To be fair, increased spending could enable us to have smaller classes, more teachers, improved facilities, increased availability of specialized teaching situations, etc. Obviously, these are help-. ful notions, which have the potential to provide a modicum of assistance. But the fatal flaw in this type of timeworn thinking is the mistaken notion that these rather superficial and mechanical improvements alone will bring about the enhanced performance that we all desire. This is an example of the musty thinking that entraps educators and leads them down the same
stale and fruitless path. At the risk of blasphemy, there are certain problems that money cannot cure. Educating young people is one of them! Most important: I hope that we do not confuse an improvement in test scores with the bogus notion that consequently pur students are now better educated. It is important to appreciate that as teachers and institutions are ruthlessly and relentlessly "squeezed" to improve the test scores of their students, more and more they will be tempted to "teach for the test." That is not education: It is thinly veiled programming, plain and simple. I fear that is a path that is increasingly unavoidable. In my opinion, the fundamental issue that is most crucial and least addressed pertains to the "learning contract" that must exist between a student and his/her educators. A true learning situation consists of a partnership between the students and their host institution. The school provides the setting - i.e., the faculty, administrators, and facilities essential to create the opportunity to acquire knowledge: that is their part of the aforementioned contract.
As is true with any contract, both parties must fulfill their respective parts. It is incumbent upon the part of the student to be emotionally and mentally prepared to acquire knowledge. Students must embrace the value and importance of becoming educated individuals. In order for this to happen, it is essential that they make the educational experience an absolute priority, having precedence over the myriad distractions and attractions that are so much a part of daily adolescent life. Moreover, they must have respect for the institution and faculty that are there to provide them with the opportunity to prepare for adult life. What a tragedy, I fear, that so many young people will not appreciate the true joy of learning and the power of being an educated individual. Unfortunately, too many students are not able to fulfill this "learning contract." Simply put, their value system is corrupted or inadequate, such that other less important notions, needs, and issues assume places of undue importance, transcending the need to make education their foremost endeav-
or. . Why? There are a host of reasons: family instability; dysfunctional cultural traditions; mental/emotional problems; substance abuse; gang participation; physical handicaps; etc. This problem is not specific to any race, ethnicity, or color. It cuts across all cultures. However, it is an obvious reality, with some exceptions, that this problem is more pronounced in communities with higher poverty ratings. Those families and students need our assistance, not our contempt, in establishing new values emphasizing the priority of education. If we do not find a way or changing cultural shortcomings, the sad but undeniable reality is that too many youth will be left floundering in a cultural abyss - a dark hole into which they cast away the importance of being knowledgeable. We cannot accept the fact that in too many communities we have been unsuccessful in generating, nurturing and reinforcing the values that are essential for learning to occur.
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