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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.