Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Higher quality education, not higher quantity

Recently, Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, suggested that we need longer school days, longer school weeks, and longer school years (thank goodness he didn't suggest a longer school month, too). His argument is, "It doesn't matter how poor, how tough the family background, socioeconomic challenges ... Where students have longer days, longer weeks, longer years -- that's making a difference."

I grew up here in Virgina Beach. For thirteen years, from Kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I attended public schools; and I tell you, it was quality education. We had art, music, and drama. We had student athletics. My high school offered advanced placement courses and other college level classes in many different subjects. One thing we didn't have was overcrowding in the classrooms. Growing up, I never understood people on television who would complain about the quality of public education, about how impossible it was to learn anything, or to take a decent arts program, or to find a classroom where the students weren't crammed "like sardines".

I get it now. Not every community has that level of quality available to them in their schools. They don't have proper teaching materials. Their buildings are actually crumbling. The textbooks are outdated, and sometimes not even grade level-appropriate. Not least of all, the teachers are overworked, underappreciated, and (some would say rightly) cynical in their daily tasks. We've all seen the movies and TV specials about the brave inner city teacher or coach who resolves to never quit on his or her students, and, against all odds, actually makes a difference in their lives. Unfortunately, that is the exception to the rule.

And the Secretary of Education thinks the solution is to make students go to these types of schools LONGER?

Michael Jordan, generally considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, once spoke about the need to focus on the fundamentals of the game if you hope to excel: "It comes down to a very simple saying: There is a right way and a wrong way to do things. You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise."

What are the fundamentals of education? First, you need a teacher who is dedicated and motivated to teaching and improving the lives of his or her students. It's hard to be dedicated and motivated, these days. With the economy in its current situation, state governments are finding that one of the best ways to save on costs (in the short run, at least) is to cut education funding. That's like a company that's losing money because of lousy customer service marks and trying to boost profits by cutting the customer service program. Teachers are the most important part of the education system; the foundation, without which, we wouldn't need any other part. They need proper training, proper support from the government and communities, and most of all, proper compensation for their services.

Second, you need proper teaching materials, such as textbooks that are up-to-date and appropriate to the grade level in which they are being used. When I first heard of schools where tenth-graders were being taught with sixth, fifth, or even fourth grade textbooks, my first thought actually was "You MUST be joking!" The quality of education doesn't suffer because students aren't staying late enough; it suffers because we aren't giving them what they need in order to learn.

Third, you need proper facilities in which to teach them. I'd hear of "crumbling schools" on the news and then go to a freshly painted building the next day. And all those students crammed "like sardines" into classrooms? I simply had never experienced anything like that growing up. I would go to school the next day after hearing something like that on TV and look at my classmates stretching out in their seats. I'd go to Phys. Ed. and play basketball, or run on the track, or lift weights, and think to myself "How can there be schools that don't have all of this?"

Fourth, and this cannot be stressed enough, the community itself must be invested in the success of the school. Strong community involvement, such as regularly held and attended PTA meetings, city council discussions, and well-funded and advertised extracurricular programs will demonstrate to the parents, and (not incidentally) to the students, the importance of having a good, quality education. These extracurricular programs may include athletic programs, school chorus and orchestral presentations, or dramatic productions. Students should find a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from more than just a report card with good grades on it. They should be allowed to put their creative and physical energies to work producing plays, works of art, and yes, even touchdowns and three-pointers. Can anyone dispute that a happy, well-rounded, and appreciated student is more likely to pursue higher education than a student who merely sits in a classroom all day?

The problem, of course, is money; no money to pay the teachers, to buy new textbooks and lab supplies, to fix the schools, or to fund a football game or a school play. We'd all like there to be more money available for these and more issues, and we all shake our heads because "there just isn't enough". Well, here's an idea: how about actually reining in all the runaway spending in Congress, the multi-trillion dollar bailout funds that aren't really helping businesses anyway, and instead of politicians raising money in the seven, eight, and nine-figure ranges to get themselves elected, we raise money to send our children to decent or even adequate schools?

I'm sending a letter to Secretary Duncan and the president, including my above response to his policies, and my proposals. I guarantee, if he takes proposals like this to the American people, he will see a much better response than he did when he suggested going to school longer. We'll all see a much higher graduation rate, as well.

1 comment:

  1. There is lots of money being thrown around, just not where I would choose to toss it.