Monday, January 08, 2007

Hope for school reform?

There has been plenty of talk about what is wrong with government schools in recent decades, but now there are increasing mentions of not "fixing" what is wrong with the current system, but starting over again.
"What if the solution to American students' stagnant performance levels and the wide achievement gap between white and minority students wasn't more money, smaller schools, or any of the reforms proposed in recent years, but rather a new education system altogether?
That's the conclusion of a bipartisan group of scholars and business leaders, school chancellors and education commissioners, and former cabinet secretaries and governors. They declare that America's public education system, designed to meet the needs of 100 years ago when the workplace revolved around an assembly line, is unsuited to today's global marketplace. Already, they warn, many Americans are in danger of falling behind and seeing their standard of living plummet."

Sounds good, right? But then they get into specifics of the plan:

"In its place, the group proposes a series of controversial reforms:
*Offer universal pre-kindergarten programs and opportunities for continuing education for adults without high school diplomas."

Shuttling them into school earlier? We have tried that over the past 30 years with K and now preschool- studies show it doesn't help 90% of children. Our test results are fine in comparison with other countries for the first few years of school, it is at the 3-4th grade level that we start to fall-where students have to learn specific skills such as math, spelling, writing, grammar, history, and science.

We already have an extensive system of community colleges in our nation- anyone can take a myriad of courses to improve themselves at little cost.

"*Create state board exams that students could pass at age 16 to move either on to community college or to a university-level high school curriculum."

"Graduating" students before they drop out would only improve statistics. The last stumps me: is this admitting that today students don't learn anything in the last 2 years of high school? Are they saying that they would track 14-15 year olds to graduate early (meaning drop out), technical program (CC), or professional program (university)?

"*Improve school salaries in exchange for reducing secure pension benefits, and pay teachers more to work with at-risk kids, for longer hours, or for high performance."

More pay with no benefits discourages burnt-out teachers to hang out until retirement. The economics of having to pay more for harder-to-fill spots also sounds good, but who decides which are the at-risk kids? Special education teachers already get the same pay for 8-10 kids in a class. (I worked with LD and ED students for several years) Where is the incentive for the teachers of the high achieving students- the ones who will be our future professionals? And which kids always get left out? The ones in the middle, the majority of kids. What determines "high performance"? High test scores?What we really don't need is more testing. What we need are more answers to the question "What is the point of all this schooling?" asked by the children and therefore more learning.

"*Create curriculums that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts over rote learning or mastery of facts."
We have been trying this for 20+ years and all it has created is a class of people who don't know their basic skills. They can't spell (substituted with creative spelling), can't do simple arithmetic (new math has replaced drills), can't write or speak well (dropped grammer and diagramming entirely), and can't remember much (eliminated memorizing poetry and speeches).
You can't learn how to break the rules without first having learned the rules. An artist must learn the basics of form, design, and color before he strikes out in new direction. An engineer must learn the laws of physics and mathematics before he can design a new product.
A 3rd grader must memorize the multiplication tables before he can learn division, before he can learn algebra, before he can learn calculus, before he can go to MIT and major in mechanical engineering, before he can design a rocket ship motor to get us to Mars. If no one sits down and makes that child (and every child) learn his times-tables (and all the other basic skills) by rote we will become (as we are slowly becoming) a nation of service workers and low-level drones rather than a creative, energized, and productive nation.
So, same old "reform" suggestions= same old results. What should the nation do? Bust the unions, eliminate the Dept of Education, make local areas more independent, and find creative solutions such as integrating home study with optional tutor led classes, and creating more magnet-type schools that emphasize specifics such as the arts, math, and science.

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