A parent recently sent me this link to an article by columnist Walter Williams written in response to the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes referred to as the National Report Card. In it, Williams reveals and then comments on some startling statistics concerning the state of public education in our nation. The parent who sent the article said this is “good motivation to keep doing what we are doing.” I agree wholeheartedly.
Trinitas has high academic standards compared to most education options in our area. We firmly believe a big part of America’s education woes come from expecting too little from its children. To avoid that snare, we expect more from our students than other schools in our area expect from their students. When Trinitas students’ scores are compared as a group to public school students’ scores, the Trinitas scores are far higher every time and in every category. While many, many factors contribute to the higher scores, not the least of those factors is the higher expectations at Trinitas—upheld both by the school and the parents.
But even when we think our expectations are high, there is still the risk of aiming too low. That’s not a ditch we want to fall into. It would be simple to say that we are way ahead of public schools, so we’re doing fine. Maybe not though. The numbers Williams pulls out of the National Assessment of Educational Progress are indeed startling: “Only 37 percent of 12th-graders tested proficient or better in reading, and only 25 percent did so in math.” How hard is it to be better than that? Maybe that isn’t the bar we should be comparing ourselves to. If those numbers served as our standard, we would still be on track if 38 percent of Trinitas grads were proficient in reading and 26 percent in math. No, thank you.
The ditch on the other side of the road is to set the standards so high and to go after them so hard that education becomes something akin to “eating driveway gravel,” to use Douglas Wilson’s words from The Case for Classical Christian Education. Under such standards and laborious pursuit students turn in high grades and test scores consistently, but their education becomes drudgery, a season of life to be survived. Few students thrive in such a scenario; many will not meet the expectations, not because they are incapable, but because they are miserable. So there is a danger in having very high standards and pursuing those standards as if life depended upon it. If we give this danger a name, I think we call it idolatry.
At Trinitas, we like to stay out of those two ditches described above and up on the roadway, albeit a very different educational roadway we are trying to follow. Often we fall into one or the other of the ditches, but when we do, rest assured we are working to get back on the roadway. Our standards are high—they should be high—no apologies for that. The difference is in how we pursue those high standards. We want students to do their very best. School is what God has placed before them to do during this season of their lives, so we encourage them do it with their might (Ecc 9:10).
But teachers are not taskmasters and students are not slaves. Teachers should be more like guides than taskmasters. It is our job to inspire wonder, especially in the early grammar years, so that students want to pursue knowledge for the sheer, God-given pleasure of getting answers to their questions. It is our job to lead students to see connections and draw sound conclusions, especially in the dialectic years, so that knowledge blossoms into understanding for them as they really begin to mature. It is our job to help students come to see that all things are bound together in Christ, especially in the rhetoric years, so that knowledge and understanding flower fully into wisdom when every thought is taken captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:5).
The “roadway” I just described, even though it has very high expectations for outcomes, takes as its goal the cultivating of virtue in students rather than simply driving students to produce a grade or test score. Our desire at Trinitas is to see students love learning and become lifelong learners, not drones who only perform for a grade. God has given us a great big world to learn about. We couldn’t learn it all in a lifetime. Our cup runneth over in that respect. What a gift! It is hard to account for a love of learning on a report card, but it is a love that remains and enriches and fulfills and rewards long after the As and Bs have faded away.
This year’s National Report Card? More bad news. Maybe they’re aiming for the wrong things.