The ever-increasing burden of education

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Even with all its flaws, I’m a proponent of public education in

much the same way I remain committed to the fundamental principles

of democracy despite recent events in D.C. having tested this

commitment. 

In

terms of public education, there are countless books, articles, and

research projects from numerous points of view and it’s clear one

can find proponents and opponents to whatever perspective you may

choose. One recent publication is noteworthy due to the clarity in

writing and direct premise — “Schools Cannot Do It Alone” by Jamie

Vollmer, former attorney, businessman, and harsh education critic,

now an advocate and consultant to education. I’d like to quote and

paraphrase from this book in the following column.

He

argues schools need the trust, understanding, permission and

support from their communities in order to improve the public

education system and increase student success. In tracing his

journey from critic to consultant, he weaves an interesting tale as

he encounters “blueberries, bell curves, and smelly eighth

graders,” and comes to two conclusions. First, we have a system

problem, not a people problem. We need to modify the system in

order to get the graduates we want. And second, we cannot touch the

system without touching the culture of the surrounding town because

everything that goes on inside a school is tied to local attitudes,

values, traditions and beliefs. But in order to improve the system

it’s vital that we first accurately understand the system that

presently exists and how it came to be. 

For

the first time in history the security, prosperity, and health of

our nation depend on our ability to unfold the full creative

potential of every child — not just the easy ones, not just the top

20 percent of the class, and not just those who reflect our

preferred values. The problem is that America’s public education

system was never designed to do this. As Thomas Jefferson imagined

it, schools should be designed to select and sort students into two

groups: a small handful of thinkers and a great mass of obedient

doers. Back then most everyone was a farmer, the pace of change was

slow, options were few, and only a small handful of people were

paid to think. 

In

the more than 200 years since this plan was revealed, armies of

reformers have altered, strengthened, streamlined and standardized

his basic design into what we have today — schools where certain

kinds of intelligence are favored, certain kinds of skills are

preferred, and certain kinds of backgrounds are privileged. We do

know how to design and operate better schools for student success

but cannot for a variety of reasons. 

Perhaps the most obvious barrier is our collective insistence that

the school calendar incorporate summer vacation for students. The

reason for this extended escape from learning was so students could

help with farming — a vital activity in the late 1700s — but

clearly indefensible today. And yet the calendar remains tied to

the agrarian past at the expense of student success. But when

teachers or school boards or Departments of Education suggest

student achievement could be improved by some form of year-round

school, or moving spring break, or extending the school year into

June or July, changing the calendar meets with mighty pubic

resistance. It is also a financial issue. Adding to the amount of

time kids are in school would be very expensive.

Critics to our present system see problems with public education as

a people problem and lament the influence of this or that idea or

person and work to demonize the whole affair. But what we have is a

systems problem, not a people problem — and if we want to improve

the system we have to change the structure of the system. Confusing

the two is a terrible mistake that politicians, business leaders,

academics, bureaucrats, media pundits, and the public have made for

far too long. Misidentifying the core problem wastes untold

dollars, effort, and human potential and sacrifice student success

in the process.

At

the time of the Massachusetts Puritans it was assumed that families

and churches bore the major responsibility for raising a child and

teaching the essentials. Schools were organized to gain

efficiencies and the idea grew. In Jefferson’s day, schools were

simple by today’s standards — teaching reading, writing, and basic

arithmetic. Folks like Benjamin Franklin suggested schools add

things like science, history, literature and geography. At the

beginning of the 20th century politicians, academics, the clergy,

and business leaders saw public schools as a logical place for the

assimilation of immigrants and social engineering of its citizens

and workers. The trend to expand the curriculum and assign

additional duties to the schools has accelerated ever since. 

In

1900 schools were teaching all the essentials, plus nutrition,

health, music and art, and physical education. By the 1930s

vocational education was added which included home economics (for

the girls) and agriculture and industrial education (for the boys).

In the ’40s business, speech and drama, and kindergarten were

added, and school lunch provided. In the 1950s, drivers education,

foreign language, sex education, and expanded math and science

gained a foothold. In the ’60s we added AP classes, Head Start,

Title I, adult education, consumer education, and career education.

The ’70s added drug- and alcohol-abuse education, parenting

education, expanded social sciences subjects, character education,

special ed, Title IX, environmental education, women’s studies,

African-American heritage education, and school breakfast. 

And

then in the 1980s the floodgates really opened. Keyboarding,

computers, global education, multicultural education, bilingual

education, early childhood and preschool, after-school programs,

alternative education, stranger danger education, antismoking,

sexual abuse prevention, health and psychological services, and

child-abuse monitoring. The ’90s added conflict resolution,

HIV/AIDS education, CPR, America 2000 initiative (Republican),

inclusion, internet education, distance learning, tech prep,

concurrent and running start courses, Goals 2000 (democratic),

expanded gifted and talented, at risk and dropout prevention,

homeless education, gang education, service learning, and bus,

bike, gun and water safety education. 

And

today we add NCLB, bullying prevention, anti-harassment, elevator

and escalator safety awareness, obesity monitoring, organ donor

education, personal finance literacy, entrepreneurial and

innovation skills development, media literacy development,

contextual learning skill development, health and wellness and

others. You get the picture.

Each item has merit and is backed by a small army of ardent

supporters but the truth is we’ve charged schools with these added

responsibilities without adding a single minute to the school

calendar in six decades. No generation of teachers and

administrators in the history of the world has been told to fulfill

a mandate this comprehensive. But perhaps the most remarkable thing

is this. Contrary to common perception, most of the traditional

indicators of student success are not down — they are up. 

Since the 1960s enrollment and attendance are up. The number of AP

and IB students has increased. The number of students going on to

college and the percentage of those who graduated are up. Scores on

standardized tests are improving, albeit slowly. And recent

apples-to-apples comparisons on international tests like the TIMMS

and PISA showed improvement. And there is still work to be

done.

But

we will never improve the education of our students if we continue

to assume the system is sound, and the people are the problem. A

strategy of blaming, demonizing, and intimidating educators and

administrators is not only futile, it is counterproductive.

Tragically it’s also thoughtless and easy. There are ways to

improve education. It’s not that difficult. But those needed

changes will challenge the status quo in significant ways and are

certain to be met with resistance. 

We

must do everything we know how to do to empower, encourage and push

people working within the schools to function at their highest

level. After parents, no one plays a more important role in

ensuring a child’s success than his or her teacher. But no matter

how smart or hard parents and teachers work to achieve success in

their students, they cannot accomplish their goal within the

present system. The problem is the system. 

And

the solution is the community within which the schools are

embedded. Let’s join together and improve the system in order to

brighten our children’s future.

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Ivan Lorentzen is a local farmer in the Creston area, an

award-winning psychology professor at FVCC, a longtime member of

area school boards, and a father of three grown children.


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