CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Most West Virginians (at least older ones) will have heard some version of the story about a traveler who's lost his way in a rural part of the state and stops to ask a farmer for directions.
After several starts, each ending with his voice trailing off into silence, the farmer's expression turns to regret. Shaking his head slowly from side to side, he looks at the traveler and says, "You cain't get there from here."
West Virginia hired Public Works LLC, a consulting firm in West Chester, Pa., to do an "Education Efficiency Audit of West Virginia's Primary and Secondary Education System." The audit, headlined: "WANTED: A More Student-centered Education System for West Virginia," was released in January.
Readers who take the time and trouble to read the report are likely to come to a conclusion similar to that of the farmer. If the aim is to create "a more student-centered education system," the Public Works report provides no map for getting the state there.
You might suppose that that effort would have begun with some sort of student survey, asking kids what they thought about the education they were getting. Is it helping them deal with real-world problems? Explaining the world around them in ways they can understand? Requiring them to do something with their minds other than store information in short-term memory long enough to pass a test?
What do they think is the purpose of schooling other than the obvious one of learning to read, write and check to see if they've been short-changed at the drive-through window? What would they change if they could? How do they feel about the tail now wagging the education dog -- high-stakes testing? Is it really making them smarter, or is it just another adult-created hoop to jump through?
You might suppose that an attempt to put together a student-centered education system would involve extensive dialogue with people who've chosen to work with the young, prepared themselves to do so, and work at it every day -- teachers. Isn't it reasonable to suppose that their observations and insights are likely to be more useful, more to the point, more in touch with the facts on the ground than those of out-of-state visitors? They'd probably not mind being surveyed either, especially if the survey had some space for them to say what's on their mind without fear of retaliation.
Common sense now plays little or no role in educating. If it did, companies like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Educational Testing Service, ACT Inc., the College Board and other manufacturers of standardized tests and their lobbyists would not have a direct pipeline to American taxpayers, conveniently equipped with a wonderful valve that can be opened to any predetermined level of money flow simply by raising or lowering the pass-fail scores on standardized tests.
If common sense played a role, kids, teachers and parents -- not politicians and bureaucrats -- would own learning. The 1893 curriculum would be revisited, with subjects like algebra going the way of Latin, as electives rather than required courses. Legislators who know little about educating wouldn't be making rigid, same-thing-for-everybody policies. Students' and teachers' fates wouldn't hang on a single score spit out by a machine. Learners' natural abilities and interests would guide daily schedules.
To the "standards and accountability" cheerleaders -- the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Governors Association, the U.S. Department of Education, newspaper editorial boards, syndicated columnists and so on -- the complex, counterintuitive, kid-controlled, impossible-to-measure, student-centered learning process is alien. But the political version of the Golden Rule applies: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.
The Public Works LLC audit report isn't a recipe for improving education in West Virginia. Continuing to do wrong things but with greater efficiency guarantees that we "cain't" get where we need to go.
Brady, born in Parkersburg and educated in West Virginia schools in Ritchie, Mason and Lewis counties, graduated from Davis & Elkins College in 1949. He is a veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author. Visit www.marionbrady.com.