"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Education Debate Needs Reality Check and Focus

It is going to be just about impossible to “fix” public education when we do not have a consensus on what public education is supposed to be. Currently, it is supposed to be everything to everyone.

It is meant to produce students who have the skills that companies want so they can get jobs when they graduate. It is also meant to produce students with a love of learning that drives them on to secondary education. It is meant to teach Americans what students in other countries learn so we can compare our international test scores. But we also must teach a broad range of subjects beyond those that children, in the foreign schools we love to compare ourselves to, must learn.

Teachers and administrators should be educational screeners, but they should not have the ability to specifically diagnosis learning disorders. Public schools must accept all students, regardless of special educational needs. Public School Boards develop curriculum standards that all students will be taught and measured by, yet teachers are expected to provide individualized education plans for all students with learning challenges. Teachers alter curriculum and goals so that they are attainable by each student, yet somehow verify that all students achieve the same level of education. The schools are pressured to mainstream students with education disabilities or behavioral problems, while simultaneously providing the optimal learning environment, free of unnecessary distraction and disruption, for all students.

Schools must provide nutritional foods and nutrition guidance, help children with their personal health, teach morality and personal behavior. Teachers are expected to maintain discipline, but also respect (read - allow) all manner of culturally diverse behavior.

Everyone is pointing fingers at who is to blame for our “lack of success” (teachers, unions, the government, parents, students), and providing “solutions” to a process that lacks clearly defined the goals. Is it any wonder we have “failing” schools? We are all over the map on what we are doing in public schools. Because our focus is so scattered, we are lucky to get any of it right. If we are going to have national curriculum standards, then we simply must have the national discussion about what public education’s goals are. Given how many different people have an interest in public education, it seems unlikely a national consensus on goals could be anything but very minimal. Local control and diversity, as pointed out in the Conservative Manifesto on education highlighted Wednesday, points to a possibly better solution where control is returned to the local school boards to decide what defines successful public education and allows for specialized educational opportunities that meet the needs and desires of the students, not those of the state or the business community.

When you focus on the goal, your definition of success will necessarily change, and we must be ready to accept that new definition. Consider the case of charter schools. Most of the damning evidence against charter schools is that their test scores are at best the same as public schools (of course when you require them to follow the public school curriculum why should this be a surprise) and at worst they are below the public school scores. If your only goal is comparable scores for mass educated children, then charter schools become a crap shoot for success.

Now consider some of the students in the St. Louis Voluntary Interdistrict Choice program. Some parents in the VIC program simply want a place to send their kids that is free from the violence and gang influence in their local public school. If a charter school could be established in their neighborhood that was allowed to structure itself to provide this environment, where some of the, what I like to call “nice but not necessary”, curriculum could be set aside to funnel resources into providing a safe facility, where the kids don’t have to get up at 5:00 a.m. to be on a bus by 5:30 for a long ride to the suburbs, where they learn but are not pressured to meet a standard they aren't ready for, couldn't that school be considered a success?

Various charter schools with the freedom to meet specific population segment’s needs would produce students with the in depth knowledge or skill set that they want and provide the country as a whole with the diversity and creativity that keeps our economic engine running.

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful blog. All the so-called reformers have solutions for an undefined problem and make it national. I think greater clarity is coming from parents, community members, and local level decision-makers. Parents are clear, they do not want test-centric educational environments and they do not want limited revenues thrown at experiments.


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