Faking Competency

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While teaching freshman remedial reading classes at a large state university, I witnessed how very uneducated, and unmotivated, so many of today’s high school graduates really are. I was appalled to see such students at a university, many with full scholarships. I was grieved to learn that many had little-to-no interest in books or learning; that only a handful had read more than a couple books during their years of schooling.

I always do baseline testing during the first class, and the majority of my students were found to have 5th—7th grade reading levels; one read only at a third-grade level. The students were also shocked because they had come from high schools where they received, not only diplomas, but high grades. One of my lowest readers had the highest high school grade-point average.

I was also shocked to discover how dependent the students were upon ‘crutches.’ If I assigned written work, the papers arrived in rather good form, but failed to reflect the actual abilities of their authors. When I began requiring that all papers be written in class, in cursive, in front of me, rows of supposedly competent university students instantly became disabled. They could not function without their word processors checking their spelling, correcting their grammar, and warning them of sentence fragments. They knew not how to write without keyboards. Whereas I, as a student, grumbled if an assignment had to be typed; these students panicked if an assignment had to be written.

Way back when…you know, when schools were more into educating…many of us did try to hide an occasional ‘cheat sheet,’ or have notes scribbled inside our cuffs, in hopes of passing a test for which we had failed to study. Such tactics were used only in the short term and were never meant to trick an entire nation into believing that we had been honorably and thoroughly educated.

But, a new era is upon us. Students graduate uneducated, and incapable of even faking it for a simple book report. They fail to learn math facts, so need a multiplication chart. They fail to learn math processes; are not made to show their work; are not held to standards of accuracy; so are allowed — encouraged — to use calculators, even for ACT and SAT tests. Students fail to develop skill with cursive penmanship, so must depend on keyboards of some kind. They fail to learn rational thought and discriminating judgment, so must depend on fools, liberal professors, a biased media, for their ‘opinions’ and decisions. Too many young people are in academic trouble; but so are too many school districts.

Now that high stakes academic testing is “IN,” — while academic instruction remains “OUT,” — schools are confronted with thousands of these uneducated students who must soon put on a theatrical show of competency for a national audience. The schools are now the desperate ones, but their tactics, unlike our simple childish ones, are not for the short term; are increasingly expensive; and will serve to mentally cripple further generations of Americans. Desperate for federal approval (which assures federal funding) the states grasp at any possible solution — even if they must aid and abet what is, in effect, cheating.

Academic Crutches — sounds better than ‘cheating’ — have become the only hope for covering the tracks of failed educational policies; policies so disastrous that they have left the schools exposed to the ridicule of the people; policies so debilitating to the continuance of freedom that they have probably destroyed the last vestiges of our republic. Crutches that began with multiplication charts, grow more sophisticated and more expensive with each year. These crutches provide students with ever better methods for faking competency.

The relativism of modern schooling condones ‘cheat sheets’ of every modern shape and size. It encourages teachers, districts, even state legislatures, to provide children with intellectual crutches, in hopes that the American people will not notice that most students, circa late Twentieth Century/early Twenty-First Century, can not function in academic arenas without — calculators; PDAs; multiplication charts; word processors; spell-checkers; laptops; audio books; planners full of charts and maps; foreign language translators; speaking dictionaries; high interest/low reading level materials; downloadable term papers; virtual experiences; outcomes-based assessments; group-think…the list seems endless. Actually, I was hoping for a more constructive ‘bridge to the new century.’

Could legislators and school administrators possibly believe that PDA’s will organize the schedules and improve the educations of schoolchildren? I highly doubt it. I believe they hope that the PDA’s will serve as high tech ‘cheat sheets.’ The paper planners currently in use by many districts contain much of the information that students used to have to learn. All of those facts, plus processing of information, can be programmed into those small personal computers. The PDA will even type for the student, if the student will learn to execute odd stylus strokes! If that process proves to be a problem, there is a cheat sheet that can be tethered to the unit. (Ha! A low tech ‘cheat sheet’ for the high tech ‘cheat sheet!’)

Well, I suggest that we close the schools and simply provide office space for the computer technicians. I propose that students stay home — thereby saving building space; materials and supplies; staff salaries; transportation costs — and just mail in their PDAs for upgrading according to an approved school schedule. Let’s stop the pretense, and act directly to ‘educate’ the PDA’s.

Basic math and language software can be installed in the early years. Symbols and pictures can be used instead of words and expectations for reading. It seems that every child I’ve observed can take one look at any goofy drawing on any cheapo video game and instantly understand the function, purpose and number of times to push on any key to achieve any desired result, so this should work well. As students ‘learn’ more — I mean as their PDAs are programmed with more — the students may wish to broaden their ‘educations’ and possibly even choose a major. If students wish to earn foreign language credits, they can request that the translator be activated and the appropriate software loaded. If they wish to earn geography credits, they can request activation of the atlas. For English credits, the word processor; for math credits, the calculator function. During high school, the higher maths can be added, one per year in the approved sequence — Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Trig and Calculus.

For high-stakes testing, the student can mail the PDA directly to the test center where a master computer can perform an audit and give a proficiency score. In time, a student’s PDA should be able to keep track of graduation credits and even award the high school diploma. Then, if the ‘graduates’ can be trained to never leave home without their ‘educations,’ the pretense might fool some of the people some of the time (kind of like public school graduates do now…). In time, maybe EKG stickies can attach the circuitry of PDA’s to human owners. Employers may finally be able to hire employees who far surpass what passes for ‘educated graduates’ from today’s schools. The ultimate Faked Competency.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] lives in Michigan. She is a free-lance writer and the owner of “The Learning Clinic,” where real reading, and real math, are taught effectively and efficiently.

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