A quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but which may have been edited, nevertheless expressed his views on learning. ”An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” he might have said. Regardless of the historical source, I can think of no angle from which the assertion might be assailed. I could not agree more with the statement, so it gives me reason for concern as a citizen, taxpayer, and small business owner in Griffin.
My personal observation is that significant numbers of Griffin-Spalding County youth appear to have serious knowledge deficits ranging from functional illiteracy to perhaps something worse. Nationally, half of adults in the U.S. cannot read a book on eight grade reading level, and 45 million of those read below fifth grade level.
To be clear, however, there are two issues raised in the paragraph above. One is adult literacy, and this is being addressed by the Griffin-Spalding Literacy Commission with the heroic work of Terry Huddleston and others whose results are inspirational. The other is illiteracy in the product of our Georgia schools.
Here in Griffin, we have improved to the point that 66.33% of our high school students graduate. The Spalding County School District spends $9,340/student, with 62% invested in instruction, 33% on support services, and 5% on other elementary and secondary expenditures. We have some master teachers and some excellent students in our schools, but 1/3 of our students are missing the mark. I am not criticizing anyone here, but as citizens and taxpayers who foot this bill, we should ask periodically what the return on our sizable investment really is, just as we should do with every investment in the spirit of diligent stewardship.
Recently, a student in a middle school from a neighboring county was being tutored to prepare him for an advanced math course. He could not add, subtract, multiply, or divide. He had limited knowledge of multiplication tables, number lines, concepts of negative numbers, etc. The tutor gave him a hand written list of things to study before their second session. He immediately returned it, stating he could not read cursive writing. Chances for success in the advanced math course were not promising.
A teacher from that same neighboring county told me she had been told she could not fail a student who did not perform adequately. She was ordered to give the student progressively easier exams until he could pass and advance with his class. Her frustration was as obvious as her sense of defeat by the “education” system. When did “equal opportunity” get bastardized into “equal outcomes?”
I was in a grocery store during a storm. When the power failed, the cashier, who had graduated two months earlier from a Griffin high school, froze in fear as I handed her a $20 bill for my purchase. She had no idea how to determine or count correct change.
I gave a bonus question on my Anatomy exam last year. The question was, “General John B. Gordon was a great American soldier. In which war did he fight, and in what army?” One answer came back, “I think he was a Confederate, and he fought in the Cold War.” I knew this was false, as I am a veteran of the Cold War myself.
We are amused at times when someone in the news media takes a roving camera crew on the streets of America to ask people who the vice president is, for example, recording the uncomfortable and embarrassing silence of ignorance. However funny it may seem, if Jefferson is right, the Republic in which we live is in jeopardy.
So what can we do?
A couple of weeks ago, I posed this question to Governor Deal at a breakfast meeting as he made a stumping stop here. His answer was long, but partially informative. The “cliff note” version of his answer was that our college and university system is doing well. Two of our universities were in a top twenty list recently. Our technical education system is one of the strongest nationally, with the premier institution in that system being our own Southern Crescent. On the other end, our pre-kindergarten is strong, funded by the lottery, and doing well by whatever measurements the observers are using. Our weakness, he conceded, is in the middle, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Indeed, Governor Deal, it seems to be. This was true even before the disastrous Common Core curriculum.
The governor has some people looking into some innovative solutions. Many will point to the parents, as lifelong learning is a value that should be taught in the home. Alas, however, not all students have parents at home. Given our illegitimacy rates, it might be surmised accurately that many students do not have both parents in their lives.
My concern for Griffin includes some anxiety for business and commerce. Below is my thinking in a nutshell.
Two students begin the first grade together. Jimmy acquires basic reading skill, studies, and makes grades sufficient for a “B” grade point average. He graduates and leaves for college with his Hope scholarship in hand. He emerges with a marketable skill and goes to work, but not in Griffin. He comes to Griffin occasionally to visit his parents and the Sock Shoppe.
Little Johnny, on the other hand, fails to master reading, writing, and arithmetic. He passes each grade, however, because his teachers cannot fail him. He has an intact self-image, as he has always passed his courses, but he is one of the 33.67% who do not graduate from high school. He does not leave Griffin, lacking options or prospects, so over time, Little Johnnies accumulate. The lack of marketable skill makes a life of crime more attractive to him, so some Johnnies find their way into the prison system. Many of the rest become the available labor force with which we hope to attract the next NACOM to Griffin/Spalding County.
I do not have all the answers, either, but I am willing to do whatever I can to contribute to solutions. Our situation is affected by the economy, social factors, cultural issues, illegitimacy rates, and other vectors that impact our direction. Some of these are beyond our control or even our prediction.
As long as desire for equal outcome replaces equal opportunity, concern for feelings supplant reward for achievement, pressure to pass prevails over impartial application of classroom standards, and average yearly progress is applied to schools and not students, Little Johnny will continue to multiply. Sadly, though, Little Johnny will never flourish. He will not achieve independence or true freedom that adult Americans should have as a birthright, and Griffin will not be enriched by the skills he failed to acquire.
It is not a partisan issue, though someone would focus there over solutions. While I can’t imagine that more money is the answer, community discussion and involvement might be a place to start. I think we should talk about it realistically, honestly, openly, and courageously for the sake of the Griffin we all love. It is, after all, our home.
Robert A. Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC