12/12/13: Virginia schools should look southward

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

CONFESSION: I never was taught how to diagram a sentence.

Of course, that was in the prehistoric days of education, where the emphasis was on reading, writing and arithmetic. Those three basic skills were the foundation of everything else and tightly woven into the public school education I received.

Perhaps no skill has proved more valuable to me than reading. The world outside my childhood neighborhood expanded significantly because books could take me to places that I’d never see and into the lives of people I would never meet.

We were taught not just how to spell words but to understand their meanings and their use. A dictionary was a constant companion, to look up new words that I ran across in the four or five books I read each week. My love for reading and learning hasn’t diminished all these years later.

I have to admit to being surprised the first time a student of mine at Old Dominion University asked me what a word meant. I’ve since learned that such a question is not unusual; as I’ve written before, Johnny can read, but can Johnny comprehend what he just read?

I’ve long believed that standardized testing was the root of the problem. Monday’s article by The Virginian-Pilot’s Sarah Hutchins provided more substantiation.

Until the newest Standards of Learning tests last school year, students were evaluated on their ability to “remember and repeat,” what I call memorize and regurgitate. The new tests “are designed to foster critical thinking.”

Virginia’s SOLs have been around since 1997. And those in charge just saw fit to include critical thinking last year. Let that sink in for a minute. An entire generation of public school students has not been taught “the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion,” as critical thinking has been defined.

And they show up every day in our colleges and universities.

This is an example of where a university system in Virginia could have helped.

I’ve no doubt that each of the 15 public four-year institutions in Virginia has seen the effects of this lack of critical thinking skills in the classroom. I’ve no doubt it has been discussed.

But where did they act, in concert, to help force a change to the SOLs? Sadly, they have not.

The university system in North Carolina has used its heft to work with the state’s public high schools to increase educational standards. Since 1988, the system has employed minimum entrance requirements, with the latest revision to these requirements taking effect in the fall of 2006.

With each change by the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system, the North Carolina State Board of Education has revised its requirements for high school graduation.

This tight integration between the public higher education institutions and the K-12 curriculum is reflected in the North Carolina standard course of study for K-12.

In black and white, North Carolina proclaims its commitment to critical thinking. “To become productive, responsible citizens and to achieve a sense of personal fulfillment, students must develop their ability to think and reason. It is no longer adequate for students to simply memorize information for recall.”

Perhaps Virginians should worry less about students in foreign countries being better educated than ours and focus instead on competing with North Carolina. Implementation of a university system would be a start.