Failing Literacy and Math Proficiency Rates – Where Do We Go From Here…

In the aftermath of the school shutdowns during the Covid outbreak, there has been much discussion regarding the negative academic, social, psychological, and emotional impacts on our young people.  Although the scale and depth of the impact may not be fully understood for years to come, the devastation on state and national proficiency rates is fully apparent.  Moreover, in looking more closely at the reading and math proficiency rates in Wisconsin over time, the fact of the matter is that these rates have been alarmingly low years before Covid reared its ugly head.

We can all agree that the attempt at remote learning during the covid year was ineffective at best and an utter failure at worst.  Even though many teachers and administrators poured their hearts into making the most of that very difficult situation, and most parents engaged to the best of their abilities, little to no learning was accomplished during the 2020 / 2021 year for the schools that remained virtual.  So, the 7% decline in literacy proficiency rates, and the 10% reduction in math proficiency rates during that time period was somewhat predictable.  What is much more concerning is the fact that proficiency rates were hovering at the 44% rate in English and at the 43% rate in math, back in 2017, and either decreased or held steady for 2018 and 2019.

That means that fewer than one out of every two students in the state of Wisconsin are grade level proficient in reading and in math.  What’s even more startling is that Wisconsin fairs better than average relative to the other states in the union.  Aside from covid, then, why are academic proficiency rates so low across the state and across the country, and what can be done to achieve proficiency rates of 75% or higher – rates worthy of this great country of ours.

Some will attempt to discount this state of emergency by blaming it entirely on the pandemic and assuming all will become good again over time.  The data simply does not support this argument, so be very careful not to be lulled into a false sense of security.  Others will tell us that there is not enough money in education; again, the data dramatically refutes this red herring as educational spending in this state and across the country has doubled and tripled over the past handful of years, with the average cost of educating a student having risen to $13,000+ per school year. 

One of the main reasons that educational standards and proficiencies have plummeted is that we as parents have abdicated our responsibility as primary educators of our children.  Many of us have become far too comfortable dropping our children at the school’s doorstep and assuming that the teachers and administrators will take care of things for us.  Do you know what your children are doing during the school day?  Do you talk with your kids about what they learned in math class today?  When your student’s teacher sends home a summary of their curriculum for the week, do you take the time to read through the details?  If you have some thoughts or concerns about a how a particular subject is being handled (or mishandled) at your school, do you take the time to respectfully follow-up with the teacher and/or the principal?  If your student has homework, do you take the time to get engaged if needed?  We are our children’s teachers, and we must not and cannot surrender that critical role.

Another reason that academic proficiency is down across the country is that overall educational rigor has decreased significantly over the past 30 years.  The next time your students comes home from school, ask them to break down how much of their day was spent being taught a subject and how much of their day was ‘work time’ or ‘flex time’ or ‘movie time’.  You may be surprised.  In an effort to keep as many students ‘on board’ as possible, there has been a conscious decision in education to dumb down the curriculum and the overall workload.  Inordinate amounts of teachers’ days are spent managing unruly students, in an endless cycle of reprimands and disrespect. In addition, as some parents may not be able or available to help with homework, the decision has been made to eliminate homework to ‘even the playing field’. 

We must immediately and aggressively reverse this devastating mindset.  We must raise the bar of expectations for all of our students.  Teachers and administrators must focus on filling the class time with instruction and information exchange vs free time, group work, or work time.  We as parents need to support our schools in taking a more serious approach to our children’s education and then prepare our kids with clear expectations and respect for their education.  We need to volunteer in the classroom; we need to work together in ‘mom networks’ and ‘dad networks’ to support teachers, parents and students who might be struggling or who just need assistance.  We need to get back to the basics of teaching phonics, ‘regular’ math, science, history, technology and financial literacy, and leave the social experimenting to other organizations.  If there are students in the classroom who continuously disrupt the class, a new setting must be found for these students apart from the mainstream classroom, so that real learning can take place every day.  We need to get back to the days of no food, proper dress, and now, no cell phones in the classroom, so that our children begin to develop a proper understanding of the value of education in their lives. 

We must cultivate smart, passionate young people, especially in the STEM subjects, to become teachers and then provide work environments that are conducive to serious learning.  We will need to pay these teachers well, so the choice to teach does not significantly impact their earning potential; likewise, we must release some teachers who are unqualified or who are confused about their role in the classroom.  Most importantly, we as a community need to re-prioritize academics in our schools above sports, building needs, and social engineering.  This will allow our teachers to again re-discover their true mission and our students to reach their true potential.