A plea for help … from an Idaho educator

I had an interesting experience this week when I was asked to help supervise a test given to a group of high school seniors. As the testing was about to begin, the principal made a short announcement on the PA system encouraging them and expressing how much confidence he had in them.

I was surprised to hear several college-bound seniors laugh out loud. It certainly wasn’t his message. He was brief, positive and encouraging. I did what any good teacher would do. I asked the class what was so funny. The answer both intrigued and frustrated me.

Jared Emfield

“Idaho is dead last in the United States in education” was the first answer. This declaration was met with snickers and nods of approval from his classmates. “What evidence do you base that conclusion on?” I asked. “Everyone knows that,” came the answer. Unfortunately, the time for discussion was over and the test had to begin. I didn’t have a chance to help these young men and women analyze the argument that society had sold them.

It’s not like I hadn’t heard this argument before. I have had that line thrown at me by parents, politicians and reporters.  Usually it isn’t meant as an indictment of our students, but a statement about teachers and our education system in general. When I do have time to discuss the claim, it usually comes from statements made during political campaigns and in media headlines. The first is designed to get votes, the second to get clicks. Fortunately, neither the headlines nor the campaign slogans are accurate. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop our students from believing that:

  1. Their schools and educators are responsible for their performance.
  2. This education system has failed them and they will therefore be unsuccessful on this test and most likely in life.

There are two reasons that this experience impacted me so profoundly. First, as a teacher I took it very personally. I spend my days telling my kids that they can do anything if they are willing to work hard enough. I tell them that we all have weaknesses and strengths, but every single one of us can magnify our strengths and overcome our weaknesses to become the best person we can become.

I tell them that no one, no teacher, no government power, no society can keep them down. No poverty, no learning disability, no experience is so overpowering that it cannot be beaten back. It may be hard, but hard is good. Hard is what makes us strong. I resent any community leader or aspiring politician who tells my kids that they can’t or that their success or failure is in someone else’s hands.

These students were defeated before they even walked in the room. They had been told over and over again that they were in the worst state in the nation, and they were already convinced that this test would be just another example of Idaho’s failure. It was one of the best examples of the big lie fallacy I have seen in my lifetime.

The second reason this experience bothered me so much was that the claim simply isn’t true. Each day I teach my students to trust nothing they hear or read, until they have done enough research to make their own judgement. The headlines and slogans that read “Idaho scores near last in the nation in education” or “Idaho ranked 48th in the U.S. in education” are written to gain clicks and get votes.

All one has to do is read the article – or even better the research behind the headline – and one will discover that Idaho ranks near the bottom in funding per student and in following the federal “formula for success” in education, but that their performance is actually very good.

For example, several recent articles discussed Idaho’s “D+ ranking” by the Education Week Research Center. The ratings and the articles were posted and reposted on social media, and touted by political candidates as reasons why our system needs to change (and why they needed your vote.) A quick review of the research and articles themselves, however, showed that Idaho received “average and above-average scores on several achievement metrics, such as test scores and graduation rates.” The low rankings are almost entirely made up of a review of Idaho’s funding of education and reluctance to conform to mandates made by politicians in Washington who have never set foot in a classroom.

So what does it mean when a state is spending less per student than almost any other state in the nation, and receiving a low “conformity rating,” but has students who score average and above average when it comes to actual performance? You have a state where educators and families are doing more with less. You have students overcoming poverty and teachers inspiring students to succeed through pure grit and determination. You have people thinking out of the box and working miracles.

I’m sure you’ve heard the maxim attributed to Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” As a parent, and an educator, I plead for our community leaders and media representatives to stop telling our kids that they can’t.

Stop telling them that their success or failure is the result of “the system” and not their own efforts. Stop using these kids as pawns to get clicks and votes, because they are listening. We should always look for ways to improve education, but we can do it with integrity and enthusiasm. Tell them the truth and tell them they can.

Written by Jared Emfield, a parent, educator and former administrator in East Idaho. 

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