A Look Back And A Peek At The Future
I have been associated with Idaho elementary and secondary schools as a teacher, counselor, administrator, legislator and school choice advocate for over a half century. The changes I have witnessed in that span are many and significant, but not all for the better.
The most obvious changes are the physical condition in which our students attend school. For the most part schools have been modernized with better lighting, heating and in general are much more attractive places than at any time in our history. Today they are better equipped. Class sizes are significantly smaller. Additionally, our teachers are much better compensated than ever and certification standards for teachers are higher than ever before.
With all of these positive attributes accruing to elementary and secondary schools you would have to think that our schools also have become better. But not necessarily so! In fact the opportunity for a better education and the odds that a student would graduate from high school were better then than now. Why has this happened when we have had all of those improvements?
The causes are many and varied. There are some pockets of excellence with some traditional schools, charter schools and magnet schools. However, for the most part schools today are fraught with poor discipline and they adhere to social promotion, heterogeneous grouping, and “fads” over basics, Schools are more interested in protecting the student’s self concept than achievement. They use dumb-downed and propagandized textbooks.
When I entered my high school science classroom for the first time there were consequences for misbehavior (yes even corporal punishment) consequences for failure, (grade retention) and our textbooks were old but accurate and challenging and we had ability grouping. There was a top group as well as an average group and a slower one. The kids in the top group were not held back by the less able or less motivated and as a teacher I was able to push these kids to a higher level. There were few discipline problems and these kids were getting a first class education and could compete with kids anywhere and they did. I also taught the other groups as well and with ability grouping teachers more easily adjusted curriculum and methods to best fit their students. That is not the case today because ability grouping has been destroyed by ideas from the liberal education establishment who have also won the political battle for control of our schools. This has led to the deterioration of school discipline, drifting away from the basics in favor of new exciting educational “fads.” It seems as though the role of schools today is to make the schools exciting and entertaining. It has led to the use of unproven methods, questionable textbooks and a breakdown of what schools are supposed to be about.
Most of what has to be done in our classrooms is not necessarily entertaining or exciting, but they have to be done, because if they are not there are dire consequences and we are seeing many of those today. We have terrible graduation rates, many of our kids can’t read, even at the high school level and huge amounts of dollars are spent on remedial education at the college level. Our best and brightest students are surpassed by students from other countries. If we don’t turn this “ship of education” around there will continue to be consequences for generations to come.
It is always easier to criticize than to offer solutions, but in this case it is not “rocket science” to offer something better. We could start with a couple of “laws,” or principles. First, you can’t keep doing the same thing and somehow expect better results and secondly there is no relationship between amount of money spent per child and education quality. Yes, you must have money to pay the bills, but money does not drive improvement, policy does. Policy is established via rules and laws by the Legislature, SDE and/or the OSBE. First and foremost our policy makers must recognize and accept that change in the system is mandatory. Further, they must recognize the rapidly emerging array of different education delivery systems such as home schools, schools within schools,` virtual schools, charter schools and the varying private and parochial school options. They must enact rules and laws that enhance these alternatives to the traditional model rather than stifle them.
Much of what is written above was first written and delivered to legislators a couple of years ago. Since that time the future for Idaho schools appears to be a little bit brighter. In 2010 the Idaho Legislature passed a law that provides much greater opportunity for students to challenge courses, and accelerate through school in a much shorter period than previously. In 2011, with Superintendent Luna’s reform measures the future got a whole lot brighter. However, those measurers are on the 2012 ballot for approval or repeal. What will be the result, go back to business as usual or take some bold steps forward?
Obviously, that decision is months away but my forecast is that the vast majority of Idaho voters, are not happy with schools as they are and will support the positive changes that Luna’s “students come first” agenda proposes.
After 50 plus years in the “business” and watching our schools go “down-hill” more each year it is truly an exciting time to see some real improvement possibilities on the horizon. Superintendent Luna and the Idaho legislature have taken the first step. The Idaho voters will provide the next one.