Do we really care?

Published 12:14 pm Saturday, May 31, 2014

According to a recent article in Education Week (“U.S. Achievement Stalls as Other Nations Make Gains,” Dec. 3, 2013, Liana Heitin), student performance in this country continues to slide down the world rankings. The cited results, which were based on an international assessment (2012 Program for International Student Assessment) given every three years to 65 participating countries and provinces, showed that in 2012 the United States trailed 29 other school systems in math proficiency, up from 23 in 2009. In science, 22 education systems outperformed the U.S., up from 18 in 2009. And in reading, the students in 19 other systems outscored our students as compared to only nine in 2009.

There has been much handwringing in recent years regarding our decline in comparative global performance. Many experts cite our part-time educational system, noting that many other countries have moved to a year round model. Others lament the hyper-focus on standardized testing as a distraction from traditional teaching methods. Almost everyone seems to blame a lack of adequate funding.

On a macro level, these and many other very complex issues deserve to be pointed to as areas of concern as we collectively struggle to understand our students’ waning ability to compete globally.

But on the most micro, local level, if we are going to point at any one thing that explains why their peers around the world are substantially outperforming our students, it should be this:

The mirror.

That’s right, the mirror. It’s time we have an honest discussion with ourselves about how important education really is to us in this country. And I’m not talking about a conversation filled with platitudes and clichés about the importance of getting an education. I’m talking about a conversation where we seriously explore what we’re willing to sacrifice in order for our children to get one.

It’s clear based on the attendance records for Southampton County’s schools on Monday some of the things we’re not willing to give up. The pool. The beach. The river. The lake. Busch Gardens. Grandma’s cookout. Basically, all the things that had previously been scheduled for Memorial Day but were inconvenienced by the school division’s decision to use it as a makeup day. And how do I know people weren’t willing to give those things up? Because more than half of the students enrolled in Southampton County Public Schools weren’t there that day. That’s right, fewer than half of the county’s children went to school on a day when classes were in session.

And that tells us a lot about where education ranks on our collective list of priorities.

Now, did the majority of kids who skipped school Monday miss anything deep and meaningful that was taught in the classroom that day? Probably not. By most accounts, Monday was not exactly a heavy instructional day, if you know what I mean.

But in a Big Picture sense, what did we teach our children by taking them to Water Country on Monday instead of dropping them off at school? We reinforced for a generation of children already saddled with a sense of entitlement and an insatiable desire for instant gratification that school is not going to get in the way of the things that really matter. We taught them that education takes a back seat to recreation. We taught them that they can do whatever they want without regard for authority.

We completely undermined the authority of their teachers, their principals and school administrators. And because of my generation’s overwhelming desire to fill its children’s days with enough fun and happiness and frivolity to create a lifetime of memories, we did so at the expense of teaching them that the things that matter most often require discipline, commitment and, perish the thought, a little sacrifice.

Which, ironically, is what Memorial Day is all about anyway, isn’t it?

So if we’re going to actually care about how our children do in school, we’d better make sure we’re doing our part to teach them why they should care, too. And we’d better hurry up. We’re running out of countries to fall behind.

TONY CLARK is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is