Assignment for city schools: Improve critical thinking

“Excellence is not a skill; it’s an attitude.”

That short message on the sign welcoming students, teachers and the community to Williamson Elementary School on the city’s South Side holds valuable lessons for the entire city school district as it works to climb out of its rock-bottom achievement standing of academic emergency.

A recent evaluation of the district’s academic weaknesses proves as much. In a recent report from EdFocus of East Palestine, one of the consultants of the city schools’ academic-recovery plan, evaluators noted “an absence of critical thinking” in the schools as a key impediment to students’ academic performance and their readiness for higher education and employment.

The report indicates that in the city schools’ quest to impart basic skills for students to perform well on standardized tests, they may be shortchanging students’ by neglecting to teach the correct attitude for broad-based learning and inquiry, namely critical thinking.

According to linguists Michael Scriven and Richard Paul, critical thinking transcends the mere acquisition and retention of information or the mere possession of a set of skills.

Rather they say critical thinking is the “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. ’’

Of course, the city school district is not alone in missing the mark in a curriculum that accents skills of logic, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. College educators and others have bemoaned this deficiency for years.


Steven Kalas, a Nevada behavioral scientist, argues “there is nothing more important an education can provide a child than to foster a hunger to think critically and the tools to know how”.

Critical thinking fosters curiosity and inquiry, which in turn fosters knowledge and achievement.

As such, the Youngstown schools’ Academic Distress Commission, charged by the Ohio Department of Education to develop an academic-recovery plan, should make strengthening critical-thinking skills at all grade levels a priority plank of its overall action plan. It should explore specific means to implement components of critical thinking in a cross-section of disciplines, from language arts to social sciences.

To be sure, the absence of critical thinking has not in itself brought notoriety to the school district as the only one of 600-plus districts in Ohio to fall into the failing grade of academic emergency on the state’s annual Report Cards. As the EdFocus report illustrates, the district has a host of other deficiencies – such as the lack of a consistent curriculum and teaching standards from school building to school building.

Fortunately for the future viability of the district, Superintendent Connie Hathorn has paved the way for change with aggressive reforms in his first four months at the helm. Among them are new philosophies on learning and a restructuring of the district’s high schools to better achieve higher and more focused curriculum goals.

Hathorn, members of the commission and others have also demonstrated a willingness to take to heart recommendations of the state and others if they lead to enhancing academic performance of students and improving the public image of the district.

To those critical ends, we urge all involved in the resurrection of the city schools to make EdFocus’ advice on critical thinking a priority.

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