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ISTEP fails to measure everything that really matters

by Craig Ladwig

What will the world look like after ISTEP? Not bad, actually. We lose another inane acronym and might even see some innovation and direct teacher-to-student learning.
For example, TROY Center in Columbia City boasts a student body on whom the education system has given up -- low test scores, bad actors, individuals identified as headed down the wrong path. But they graduate thanking their lucky stars they got into trouble. In the poignant phrase of one of the students, the school taught her what a family "looks like."
What if this school, statewide testing or not, has discovered the key to more effectively educating not only troubled children but all children -- along the full range of adolescent difficulty, poor or wealthy, loved or not, from nuclear families as well as from the alternative arrangements of what has become a social hodgepodge?
That question is asked knowing that the generation headed our way, to quote the school's director, "comes from a very mixed bag and with a lot of baggage." Less than half will have been raised in a family that can even be loosely described as intact.  Even fewer -- far, far fewer -- will have been properly introduced to the values that have guided our civilization for the last thousand years.
Considering social change of such magnitude, it is not extreme to expect those who manage our school system, who design the methods we use to civilize the next generation, to make some adjustments. But if you have followed the history of ISTEP these last two decades, you will not be shocked to hear that they have not made those adjustments.
The traditional classroom has remained systemically unchanged since the one-room schoolhouse  -- 20 or so students in rows facing a teacher at the front of the class "teaching to the test." If a student rebels at this dismal prospect, he or she is out of luck -- or  reclassified, or given a degraded degree or simply graduated to make room on what is a sinking ship.
An indication of how poorly this is working is the tortured attempts to manipulate the very measures that were supposed to test the efficacy of the system. It seems like every officeholder is desperate for statistical evidence to say things are "getting better" -- even if the evidence has to be manufactured.
In fact, things are getting worse. Some are cynical enough to believe that those in the upper ranges of the education establishment are OK with that; they have figured out how to make a career out of perpetual failure. But even if you don't particularly care about the students themselves, you might be interested in what this failure of educational method is doing to your economy.
Research shows that too many of today's graduates do not have the "soft skills" required in a workplace. In other words, even setting aside the vagaries of ambition and work ethic, we are in danger of ending up with a labor force whose members cannot communicate and get along with their fellow workers, accept supervision or criticism, stay on task and complete jobs on time. These are the skills taught at schools like TROY Center, skills that ISTEP never tested.
We learn the "soft skills" from trusted adults, sometimes parents but not necessarily. These cannot be summoned like fairy godmothers, they cannot even be assigned or hired in time to make much of a difference. If you don't have one, you're going to have to figure out things on your own.
TROY has worked out a system to help young people do just that. Again, the school shows lost or rejected children what it "looks like" to have a trusted adult nearby. No, that does not replace missing or overwhelmed parents. It does, however, put children in a position of hope for at least long enough to be taught what they will need to know to live productively in a free society.
If this strikes you as expensive, you are correct. Individual counselors are needed to guide these students down a customized, flexible path to a degree. But the times leave us little choice. The sociologist Charles Murray and others have painted a detailed and grim picture of the societal division and misery that will otherwise ensue.
Now to the really good news. There are economically responsible ways to pay for all of this.
The first is a combination of tax credits and charitable donations to private schools such as TROY. This could be greatly improved in Indiana by adoption of what our adjunct Lisa Snell calls a weighted student formula for funding education. In such a system, the state education budget can remain the same but individual students carry their funding with them to the school building, private or public, of their choice. Some carry more and some less, weighted as to the cost of their particular education needs. A student with a speech or reading problem, for example, would carry more than one without.
For those who want to avoid the politics and bureaucracy of public education altogether, another adjunct of the foundation has worked out a minimalist private school. Using cyberspace innovation and donated space in churches and other nonprofits, Ron Reinking, a certified public account, can show you a worksheet that reflects costs per students in hundreds of dollars rather than thousands.
So before education falls into utter disrepair and takes our economy with it, someone might want to see what the alternatives to certain disaster might "look like."

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.

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