Academic Freedom

As a sponsored research administrator, one of my goals in negotiating any grant or contract is to preserve for our faculty the ability to publish and disseminate the results of their work. This can prove contentious at times when a private industry sponsor may only wish to release research results that confirm their hypotheses or support the product or methodology tested. It is with great dismay that I have read about how recent interpretations of Title IX have put a chokehold on academic freedom and administrations have seemingly left faculty out in the cold. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a chilling tale of a Northwestern University faculty member's experience with accusations of Title IX violation.

 

Title IX is meant to prevent discrimination based on certain protected categories but has been so loosely interpreted to mean no one should ever feel uncomfortable or offended by material required to complete coursework. Title IX coordinators, who often also serve as Clery Act coordinators, have been granted powers that can result in secret tribunals and employment decisions that violate standard procedures. In situations where the Clery Act may apply (an Act that is meant to force higher ed to accurately report sexual violence on or near campus), the Title IX/Clery Act coordinators have the ability to block due process by determining whether or not a crime was committed, a role that should be filled by campus law enforcement. A university administrator with a potential conflict of interest and no requisite criminal justice background should not be performing this function. The way this Act has been interpreted at some of Virginia's universities also takes away the rights of victims to decide how they want their case handled. 

 

While sexual violence and cases of discrimination absolutely do occur on college and university campuses, the current trend of secrecy, inappropriate power, and intereference with scholarly work must be addressed. For victims of crimes that fall under the Clery Act, the fear of mandatory reporting may suppress reporting of assaults rather than encourage it.

Physical Education and Recess

Evidence is mounting that our children may face a bleak health future: 12% of the US adult population has diabetes with as much as a third with prediabetes. At this rate, a third of Americans will have diabetes by 2050. Almost 35% of adults in the US today are obese. Changing the composition of meals served at school is but a single step toward putting our children on the right path. In Hanover County, elementary school children have physical education only 1 day per week. Children are supposed to have 30 minutes of recess every day, but inclement weather can keep them indoors or it can be taken away as punishment. Vigorous free play is essential to school performance, child well-being, and good classroom behavior. I am concerned that academic readiness at the preschool level and testing performance metrics at the elementary school level have compressed time available for unrestricted physical exertion and imaginative play. There is a larger concern that factors into this scenario, the Standards of Learning benchmarks for public education.

Standardized Tests

My graduating class was part of the guinea pig phase for many of the current Standards of Learning tests. These tests didn't have an impact on our graduation, but they did mean accreditation for our schools. The SOLs, according to the Virginia Department of Education, "describe the Commonwealth's expectations for student learning and achievement in grades K-12." Unfortunately, these tests neither benchmark student performance in a way that ties to real-life skills nor are they truly used for the stated purpose. Instead, these scores are used a barometer of instructional ability of our teachers and in a twisted fashion have promoted the high turnover in teaching professionals. The amount of classroom time dedicated to test preparation, practice testing, and re-testing takes away from instructional and enrichment time. If elected, I would request a comparative JLARC study on the efficacy of SOLs in terms of post-education employment (employment rates and earnings) against a baseline of pre-SOL graduates. If SOLs are not objectively compared and contrasted to the baseline of individuals predating the SOL testing regime, we cannot reasonably state that this scoring and accreditation system is the best way to educate our children.

 

Teacher turnover costs money. Within 5 years of entering the teaching profession, half of Virginia educators leave teaching behind. Any time any firm has to replace staff, there is a training and adjustment period that results in lower productivity and therefore higher cost. Education is no different and estimates for the cost of turnover in Virginia run as high as $53 million per year. The 97th District takes great pride in the quality of its schools, but even the best of schools can be hampered by bad policy. 



The text below is a letter I submitted to the Editor of the Mechanicsville Local back in the fall of 2011.

Letter to the Editor: Thank goodness we failed

 

                During my morning commute last week, I heard a radio broadcast announcing that Virginia had failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind Act. Friday’s Times Dispatch corroborated the story with the headline “Fewer schools hit benchmarks.” As a state, the Commonwealth of Virginia failed to make AYP. The article went on to include a table showing that even the esteemed schools of Hanover County had dropped significantly in their passing rates; we’ve declined by nearly 20% since last year’s tests were administered.

                Herein lies a lesson in statistics, for which credit must be given to my statistics teacher at Lee Davis High School: You can manipulate the numbers to say anything you like. Typically, the first grade or score that comes to mind when one hears “failure” is an “F.” Most places consider an F a score of 69% or less. In the current NCLB testing cycle, a score of 85 for math and 86 for reading is required to pass each subject. So, an 84, which is a middling “C” in most schools, is a failure in both subjects. To add to the situation, overall pass rates were little changed from last year. The overall change was limited to one percentage point in either direction, up to 89% in reading/writing but down to 87% in math.

                One has to ask, “To what end?” when hearing of such results. As I mentioned, we can manipulate the results and their presentation to read either “doom and gloom” or a somewhat smug reporting of Hanover County’s continued superiority over other school systems. Here’s how: Last year, 19 of 23 Hanover Schools passed AYP benchmarks. This year, 15 did. If I take the negative route, I can say “Hanover County testing results show nearly 20% decline in passing rates.” People respond most to even increments, so the 17.3% change is rounded to the nearest ten. Want to spin it the other way to cast Hanover in a positive light? Report this instead: “Hanover County pass rates significantly exceed Central Virginia’s average.” Since at least 65% of Hanover County schools did meet the benchmark scores compared to the abysmal 38% overall rate, this statement is also a true accounting of the results.

                When we can present the numbers either way depending on how we want to be perceived as a county, what concrete and objective purpose do these tests serve? More importantly, what do they mean for our students and children? Fewer opportunities to explore their world, unnecessary anxiety, and less critical thought. Teaching to the test has become the mantra pounded into the heads of educators statewide ever since the introduction of the SOLs. I can recall when the SOLs first appeared on the scene and my teachers were suddenly required to write on the chalkboard which standards were met by the day’s lesson. In this environment, how can a teacher’s enthusiasm, creativity, or ingenuity be expressed? Without these guiding forces in the classroom, how can students model these positive approaches to education in their own studies? If you have not noticed, field trips have all but evaporated and it isn’t just because of gas prices.

                In terms of the effect this stifling rigidity has on students, look no further than the bus stop. If you have ever seen the downtrodden, drained face of a child who has just done an SOL practice test, you know exactly what I mean. I remember talking to my sister about it. She is nearly four years my junior, so the tests were not optional for her grade. The tests, practice or not, took up an enormous block of her day, not all of it even spent testing. The incessant commands of “Pencils down,” “Turn to page X,” and “Stop when you get to page Y” add untold minutes to the monotony. Some sections even required teachers to read all questions and answers aloud. Have a friend read this letter out loud to you while you try to do a crossword puzzle and tell me how well you focus.

                What is most insidious about the tests is my final point. Everything is multiple choice. Rather than reaching their own conclusions through critical thinking, students are taught that the answer is there- they must simply eliminate the wrong answers until the “best choice” remains. Multiple choice cannot demonstrate mastery of language or writing skills nor can it show a solid understanding of the concepts behind solving a math problem. This does not prepare students for any job, whether immediately following high school or after years of college. At best it promotes lazy thinking, at worst an absolute helplessness when faced with a challenging problem or situation. It does not bode well for the future of innovation when individuals undergoing the current testing practices expect all the answers to be laid out before them.

                Life may not be a multiple choice test, but Hanover County’s newly-selected superintendent, Ms. Wilson, is afforded that luxury. In light of the state’s failure, superintendents are faced with the following options: A) Continue to push students to succeed on meaningless, federally-mandated tests or B) Allow Hanover’s stellar educators to teach their students the type of skills needed to become successful adults. Pencils down, Ms. Wilson. Did you pass?