Public Education: Where do problems really lie?

Over the last week, my Choral Foundation colleague, who is also a music teacher and department chair at a high school in Montgomery County, Maryland, has been involved in her school’s summer “leadership team” meetings to prepare for the 2011-2012 school year. The principal issue underlying this school’s challenges for the upcoming year(s) is the school’s inability to meet “progress goals” (AYP’s) for student achievement mandated by the U.S. Department of Education under the No Child Left Behind Act.

As I understand it, this particular high school missed its “target” for student achievement, based largely on test scores and grades in a variety of subject areas, for the school year 2009-2010, and–although the data is not yet complete–is likely to miss the “target” again for 2010-2011. Interestingly, as its been conveyed to me, this second year consecutive “miss” is not based on percentage improvement in any or all areas over the preceding year(s) (which was, in fact, demonstrated), but rather on achievement of an “absolute” percentage achievement target established by DOE for a given year (and subsequent years). Basically, as I understand it, by 2014, all students in the school are expected to achieve 100% “success” (however it’s measured) in all measurable categories.

As an educator, I find this goal patently absurd, as it’s fundamentally impossible to achieve. As a thinking human being (and U.S. citizen), I’m equally baffled at how our schools are being held to an impossible standard by federal legislation and its administration. It appears that 25 of 32 (or so) of the middle schools in this same jurisdiction–which, by all common surveys and standards, is judged to have the country’s “best public schools”–fall short of the federal goals, thus risking oversight by some kind of organization which will be brought in to “make things right” if things don’t improve in a hurry. And, all the while, the annual “targets” keep getting raised (toward the 100%), making the likelihood of satisfactory “improvement” to avoid some sort of sanctions or oversight virtually inevitable, no matter how hard the schools try to improve their students’ achievement.

But, while I might ponder the absurdity of the standards administration or the legitimacy of NCLB at all (with which I really thought I had no beef until the nature of the assessment of schools’ “successful achievement” was explained to me by my colleague), I’m even more troubled by the nature of the discussions in which this particular school’s leadership team have been engaged. And I suspect these discussions are occurring in countless schools in and outside of this jurisdiction.

As the school’s leadership folks have met to discern what they need to do to raise student achievement to meet federal standards, they’ve engaged in exercises to determine which of their programs and initiatives “work” and which ones don’t. This appears a fruitless exercise, as–based on the school’s failure to raise student achievement to the targeted standard–none of the current programs or initiatives are working. If they were working, there’d be no problem. Yes, they may have resulted in increased student achievement percentages from the previous year…but that isn’t good enough. Further, these well-meaning educators are discussing what new initiatives might be started (policies, programs, activities, assessments, whatever) which might result in achievement of this coming year’s target. Again, a fruitless exercise, unless the precise “target number” is met absolutely; an unlikely accomplishment for a single school year alone.

But the most revealing part of the process in which these educators engaged was an exercise to “analyze root causes” of the problem of insufficient student achievement. This is what intrigues me most. Educators were asked to “brainstorm” on what conditions exist among the student population which present obstacles to achievement. Like school attendance. Or family circumstances. Or economic status. Or hunger. (That’s right, hunger.  Apparently the student achievement data reveals that the largest contingent of students not performing according to proscribed standards are those who also are eligible–based on their families’ reported incomes–for the Federal School Lunch program.) And it’s likely that other “factors”–valid as they might be–were not raised or discussed, given the perceived risk of “sensitivity” of such truths, like neighborhood crime, gang activity, alcohol or drug use/addiction (by students themselves or in their families), growing teen pregnancy rates, or a generation-to-generation dependence on what I’ll simply call “entitlement programs” (which breeds, it’s been my experience, entitlement attitudes!) which relegate students to a downward spiral of under-achievement in so many ways.

Setting aside those “obstacles” cited above which, in the interest of “political correctness,” the educators likely did not even surface in their discussion, this “root cause” exercise then proceeded to identify those factors over which the educators, the school or the school system at large have no control. Or at least over which they perceive they have no control. The fundamental premise of this step, following a logical process, was to set aside discussion of any new or enhanced initiatives to increase student achievement which might depend on these “out of our control” factors.

While this process, as outlined above, may appear “logical,” it strikes me as both myopic and intellectually dishonest. This isn’t a swipe at the educators themselves, their administrators, or the local school board(s), who, I will stipulate, find themselves in hot water and are genuinely struggling in the best way they know how to do their jobs better and improve the lot of the students to whom they are entrusted.

But, based on this process, the only way “out” of this dilemma is two-fold. First, the educators need to acknowledge that they do have some substantive influence (“control”) over those factors they consider out-of-bounds, which can directly touch and improve the moral, spiritual, economic and intellectual fiber of their students. Second, our society as a whole needs to “fess up” to its faults over the past 50-60 years, rooted in “progressive thinking” (which I deem “permissive,” based on the flawed premise of “moral relativism”) and out-of-control government, which have resulted in misguided policies, pedantry and programs (eg. the “Great Society,” which has proven to be anything but!) which have institutionalized the notions of “entitlement” and “victimization” and “preferential treatment” (eg. “Affirmative Action,” which has proven to be anything but!) in an ever-increasing percentage of our population and cultural “norms.”

We need to take the veil off both of these issues and see them as they are. The obligation of our society to change fundamentally (the second of these “ways out”) is actually paramount. The importance of such a revelation, if we’re brave enough as a society to acknowledge it and act on it, can guide us toward accomplishments which our forefathers envisioned for us as a nation…and which our Divine Providence (yes, there is one) designed us to achieve. Brave men and women in our communities, churches, governments, workplaces, schools, and organizations of all types need to stand up and “risk all,” including persecution and mockery by those whose minds and pocketbooks are fueled by a “progressive” mentality, and re-program, through word and deed, our youth, their families, their institutions and their communities, from a position of weakness based in ignorance, self-centeredness, victimhood and entitlement to a position of strength based in enlightenment, gratitude for limitless opportunity, initiative, achievement and generosity.

But the first of these “ways out,” rooted in what educators and their leaders can and should do, can actually start the ball rolling and help students find a constructive, engaging and motivating academic and/or extra-curricular activity which is life altering: participation in music programs of all types, particularly vocal or instrumental music ensembles!  It is well documented how students’ introduction to and consistent participation in music programs builds and supports discipline, pride, intellectual development, selflessness (orientation to team success), and documented success in all other academic disciplines!  Further, countless studies show substantial correlation between students’ participation in school music programs in middle and high school years and future success in business, organizations, communities and family life in general. It is my hope and passion that realization of and subscription to this fundamental truth will begin to permeate all levels of our public (and private) educational system.

A model of this approach’s success can be found in many private and parochial schools, where appreciation and prioritizing of the performing arts as both curricular and extra-curricular activities have produced palpable positive results in building students’ moral, physical, spiritual and intellectual development.

This belief is among the primary motivations for establishment of The Choral Foundation of Northern Virginia, which I am privileged to serve.  You can learn more at or by emailing me at