Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Local Control?

I know I'm supposed to believe that standardization, state or national rules, or anything beyond local control is of the devil, a corporate conspiracy, and of a piece with water fluoridation and the metric system on the list of communist conspiracies against our way of life. I get that.

But I'm still at a loss to explain why we leave some really fundamental decisions in the K-12 system to local control.

To give a really close-to-home example, my state doesn't require high school students to take four years of math. Many students stop after their sophomore year, so they can better focus on, uh, well, whatever the hell it is that they focus on for the next two years. The statewide high school exit exam doesn't test any math above the ninth-grade level, so the students can pass it early and spend two years focused on texting and football, or whatever. And apparently many of them do.

Then we wonder why so many recent high school grads place developmental in math, and we get mad at community colleges for teaching a "second" time something may or may not have been taught a first time.

The higher education that matters is regionally accredited. It's not local, and there's a good reason for that. Given how incredibly important good K-12 instruction is for success at higher levels, I'm perplexed why we leave decent instruction in the fundamentals to chance. "We don't believe in trigonometry here in East Englishmuffin." It's not up to you.

I understand a semi-reasonable argument for local control beyond the fundamentals. A school that gives the community the extras it wants will have an easier time getting higher taxes tolerated. Fair enough. But to just opt out of history, or math, or chemistry shouldn't be an option. Those aren't extras. They're the core. They should be the first order of business. Whether to field a lacrosse team could be a local option; whether to teach biology shouldn't be.

Developmental classes are designed on the assumption that the student has seen the material before; that's why they move so quickly. But if some districts are just opting out of the basics altogether, those students are in for a rude shock. And from what years of national studies of developmental ed have taught us, students who start out behind will have a much tougher row to hoe. It's possible, yes, but it's an extra burden that many students find unbearable.

I've heard economists argue that if you don't like the choices made by your local school district, you should just move. But that so badly understates the transition costs, and so grossly overstates the access to relevant information that most parents have, that it's just otherworldly. It's like those old physics word problems that start with "assuming no gravity..." Even granting a certain theoretical truth to the assertion, it's impractical to the point of silliness.

If we aren't teaching math in the latter years of high school, just what, exactly, are we paying for? What are they doing all day? And from a systems perspective, how much sense does it make to blow off math for the last two years of high school, only to teach it in compressed form in the first semesters of community college? Wouldn't it have made vastly more sense to get it right the first time?

Call me a stalking horse for standardization, if you must, but I think four years of required math and history and science in high school makes sense. Lacrosse is fine, and electives are great, but first things first. I'm tired of watching successive waves of students crash like the soldiers at Gallipoli. We know better. Frankly, I can think of worse uses for my property tax dollars than teaching math.