Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale

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Dispatches from Dixie: Education in Virginia

When I was a teenager, I wanted to attain some practical knowledge in addition to all the history, chemistry, and other fascinating topics I would never use in life. My high school in Northern Virginia happened to offer classes in computer science and business, and I happened to want more (read: any) understanding of business and computers. It was like an educational match made in heaven.

I never took any of those classes.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has one of the most celebrated public school systems in the country, ranking fourth overall and sixth in math and science among the 50 states and D.C.  More so than most of the country, Virginia tends to get a good return on its investment in education. But the problems in the Commonwealth are as insightful as the successes.

I’ll certainly never forget that “advanced” history teacher who was glaringly ignorant of basic constitutional facts or the existence of the Holy Roman Empire. (She claimed, in one of our many arguments over elementary details, that her expertise was in American history. How that was supposed to excuse her saliently false statements about the U.S. Constitution remains beyond me.) But the beast that stung most invidiously was the whole matter of standardized tests, which are at the core of federal mandates in No Child Left Behind and Virginia’s internal assessments—the Standards of Learning (SOLs).

When I moved to Fairfax County from a U.S. Army base in Germany, I was starting tenth grade. The only major change I anticipated was the switch from the Advanced Placement track to classes geared towards the International Baccalaureate Diploma. Instead, I found Virginia standards gloriously rigid, and I had to jump through more complex—and less useful—hurdles than my peers to get even the Advanced Diploma, let alone earn IB honors.

In particular, I had to take classes that were blatantly beneath my skill level simply to meet some state requirement. One year, I was literally taking two versions of the same history class—one for the IB Diploma, the other for an unavoidable and exclusive SOL requirement. Shockingly, I learned practically nothing in one of those classes; I’ll let you guess which. And all of this was after my guidance counselor (who was a truly wonderful light in a bureaucratic nightmare) fudged as many rules as she could.

Lest you think Virginia standards are more reasonable than they are, I offered to test out of my remaining SOLs—and no one doubted I could pass easily. Apparently, that was not allowed. I had to sit through redundant classes and waste time that could have been spent learning computer science, business, or psychology—or taking even more challenging IB Math. And by senior year, I still needed to sit an extra period after school to get my diploma.

You would think a state with one of the highest concentrations of military personnel in the country—complete with the largest naval base in the history of civilization—would be more accommodating of the dependent children seeking quality education within its borders. You would think a place with a bipartisan commitment to academic excellence would be more flexible to all kinds of student needs. But sadly, stories like mine were commonplace among my military friends who were whisked to Virginia from overseas.

In shocking news to no one, most military people live in the South or West.

And again, I got off easy. My friends who started in later grades or had less heroic counselors were often forced out of an advanced diploma track because of requirements designed to promote mediocrity in the name of “excellence”.

In the end, I got my IB Diploma and went off to Yale. And all it cost me was the opportunity to take a challenging set of supplementary classes offering skills I did not possess. I’m no expert on education, but I suspect something is seriously wrong when a reasonably able student must choose between an advanced diploma—which many top colleges look at in their decision processes—and useful electives that could actually deliver marketable knowledge.

All these years later, I can’t help but wonder how different things might have been if these kinds of decisions—whether a student can test out of a “necessary” class or which outsides credits should count toward graduation—could be made closer to home, where they would be more responsive to different situations. I do notice that the federal government continues to aggressively mandate education standards from on high, and people continue to live different lives in different situations.

Perhaps one day we’ll start putting major decisions back in the hands of the communities affected by them and give families more options for success, instead of merely passing. Maybe then, regrettable stories like mine will become less common.