Educational cliche: spelling
A rambling by Tom Knapp,
November 1990

It's an old cliche, seen on countless bumper stickers and T-shirts. The words have probably lost their meaning. But here it is again: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." This point was driven home recently when I helped a friend -- a teacher in Frederick, Md. -- grade vocabulary quizzes for her eighth-grade English class.

The words weren't overly difficult. The tests weren't hard. Students were given 15 words on Monday. By Friday, they were asked to spell 10 of them and give brief a definition for each. This meant, sometime between Monday and Friday, they had to use a dictionary.

Apparently the use of reference books has become a lost art. By the time I finished grading two classes' tests, I had written "F" more than a dozen times.

The students' previous teacher, my friend tells me, did not require definitions. She also gave partial spellings of the words and asked students to fill in a few blanks. I have also heard of teachers elsewhere giving multiple choice spelling tests. One parent told me her son received an "A" on each quiz until the final test, in which choices weren't provided. He discovered he couldn't spell and he failed.

There have been murmurings among some educators that standards must be lowered to accommodate students who can't succeed at a higher level. But if standards continue to be lowered, what's the point in grading at all?

The debates about expensive buildings, teacher salaries and textbooks will continue as long as education is funded through local taxes. But at some point, the debates will stop and a consensus must be reached about what, exactly, is needed to provide a good education.

Students who are not urged to excel will not. Students who find they can get by without recrimination will be satisfied doing just that. And another generation down the line, when today's students are the teachers, will they lower standards another notch?

[ by Tom Knapp ]