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Boomer Bytes #15: State of Schools

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

  • See second column – Are We Really Old? – here.
  • See third column – Cars and More Cars – here.
  • See fourth column – Getting Educated – here.
  • See fifth column – Home Alone? – here.
  • See sixth column – Death – here.
  • See seventh column – They’re Playing Our Song – here.
  • See eighth column – Driving: Knowing When To Quit – here.
  • See ninth column – Hobbies: What’s Your Favorite – here.
  • See 10th column – ‘The Last of Life, for which the First was Made’ – here.
  • See 11th column – Volunteeering – here.
  • See 12th column – Duck and Cover – here.
  • See 13th column –  Providing for the Future – here.
  • See 14th column – Here We Go Wandering… – here.

State of Schools

By Steve Canipe

April 18, 2014. Having been to school for a number of years, don’t we consider ourselves the education experts?  Or do we defer to those who have actually studied what it takes to be an expert? If that sounds like a strange question in a university town, it seems not to be.  Appalachian State has become a major economic engine for our community, but it is a school that was started for teacher preparation.


If we were talking about medicine or religion, do we have the same level of confidence that leads to a “I know more that the professional” attitude? So why the difference? I wish I could tell you an answer; but unfortunately, I don’t really have one.

Schools in our county seem to do well compared to other schools across the state.  We seem to believe in education, as reflected in the whopping cost of  nearly $80 million for the new Watauga High School.  The cost was not without some detractors, but generally there seems to be wide acceptance of the school and pride in the teachers and the graduates.

North Carolina uses end-of-grade tests (EOG) to determine the quality of educational attainment.  These scores are reported on a School Report Card.  In 2013 Watauga County data show students scoring at grade level at 52.3% compared to a state-wide average of 44.1%. So we are 20% better than the rest of the state. Even though our students do well in comparison to others in the state of North Carolina, how well do they do against others in the United States and how well in comparison to those in other countries?

While being better than your comparison group is good, we probably need to look at specific scores from other school districts in the state.  Some districts, like Chapel Hill/Carrboro, have about 40% better scores than Watauga County.

But we cannot only compare to others in the state. Our students will be competing with students from 49 other states for college admission and jobs. There is not one entity that collects sufficient data to make state-to-state comparisons totally relevant. About the best is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data that does a sampling of students at grade levels 4, 8, and 12 in reading, mathematics, science, and writing. No test is administered at each grade level every year.  In their most recent report, North Carolina scores near the average for all other states.  Does this mean we are so-so?

When we are compared internationally, the United States does not do well. Reporting the 2013 set of international results, the Business Insider notes that we are currently 31st in mathematics; 24th in science; and 21st in reading. This is out of 34 countries reporting.  The National Center for Education Statistics gathers and analyzes the data for the U.S. These tests are given to 15 year old students in a number of countries.

One of the ways that the United States has been able to hold its economic edge in the world is not through pure knowledge, which is often tested on these exams, but through innovation and problem-solving.  An example of the type of mathematics questions is:

A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years after the ice disappears, tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks. Each lichen grows approximately in the shape of a circle.

The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with the formula: where d represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and t represents the number of years after the ice has disappeared.

1. Using the formula, calculate the diameter of the lichen, 16 years after the ice disappeared. Show your calculation.

What this question does not do is to look for innovative or creative reasons for caring whether or not lichen grows or ice melts. This has been one of the criticisms of this type test.  What they show is what a student does not know; not what they do know or can figure out.  In educational circles this would be called the deficit model.

In this model, it is the student who is held “at fault” for not knowing the answers.  This was a strong motivator in the No Child Left Behind legislation. (NCLB).  The more recent Common Core Standards are focused less on what is missing and more on what can be done with what is known.  They are not immune to being used in a deficit fashion. In the real world how many times is the average person called on to solve a problem like:

Two trains leave different cities heading toward each other at different speeds. When and where do they meet? Train A, traveling 70 miles per hour (mph), leaves Westford heading toward Eastford, 260 miles away. At the same time Train B, traveling 60 mph, leaves Eastford heading toward Westford. When do the two trains meet? How far from each city do they meet?

See some more practical uses of mathematics at the site called A+Click.

A recent book that I would recommend to those who are teachers, have teachers in their families, or who have kids is called Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators by Margret Honey and David Kanter,.  This book is definitely not looking at a deficit model but is looking at what kids might bring to the table to solve problems creatively.

This kind of thoughtful approach may be necessary for teaching our kids (or grandkids) to be innovative and find new ways of doing things.  It is about being hands -on and encouraging and valuing those students who take things apart to see how they work.  Did you do that as a kid?  I did and I suspect most of us did.

We were able to do it because our parents had to solve problems and we learned that this was a good thing to do.  Our parents could not run down to the local store and buy a solution to an issue.  They took what they had and worked out a solution.

It is only my opinion when I say that one of the problems in school today is that we have taken creativity out of teaching.  Some elementary schools have such a prescription of teaching that if you were to walk in to almost any classroom anywhere in the state on day 110 of the 180 day year, you would likely find the same things being taught — probably on the same page of the book!! Do any of you see anything wrong with that picture? Teachers, Principals, Superintendents, and School Boards see this as a way to score well on those high stakes tests.

In making this point, I am still talking about holding the teacher responsible for teaching what is important.  I am talking about letting them experiment on better ways to teach the subject.

The Common Core Standards and in particular the new Next Generation Science Standards have the ability to make students and teachers accountable without being dogmatic in what is presented and in what way. In many, if not most, of the classrooms there is too much emphasis on test-taking skills — not on the learning of the material.

We’ve seemingly gone to a testing endgame.  It is certainly easier to have a paper and pencil test with correct answers than to assess and evaluate problem-solving…and I might add, a lot less expensive.  Does it help our students?

Some of us boomers will remember applied courses we took–they may have been called shop, ag, home ec, or something else.  But in shop, do you remember having to layout a building plan and then “create” it making sure that the corners were square (aka 90º angles).  Do you remember measuring for openings to allow for 2″ x 4″ lumber that was really 1.5″ x 3.5″? I did not do home ec but I can expect that there were recipes that were given for 4 people that needed to be enlarged to 9 people. …and measurements were not in even cups but in partial cups like 2/3rds or 1/4th.  These are fractions in each case and when the solution was found it was actually algebra that was used to solve for an unknown.

We might not have used letters like a= or b= but they were there.  Maybe this is what Arizona State Senator Al Melvin meant when he said of the Common Core standards, “… the program uses ‘fuzzy math,’ substituting letters for numbers in some examples.” Arizona could not call the standards Common Core because, according to Melvin, it was the Federal Government’s attempt to take over the schools.  In Arizona they call them Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards.

In actuality the entire Common Core initiative is sponsored by the National Governors Association  and the Council of Chief State School Officers and strives for consistent education standards across the states. There was no federal involvement in their formulation at all–about as grassroots as you can get. Oh what a tangled web.

Let me hear from you about your thoughts on our schools and what they are doing or not doing.  How do you feel about the job our teachers do and our University is doing to train new teachers?  Send your thoughts, either via email at boomerbytes@yahoo.com or post them at the end of the column. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.