School performance seems to be moving to the front burner of political attention with a notable and much publicized mismatch on jobs and job skills. More editorials, it seems, are coming forth on this condition.
Recently, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander wrote an article in the New York Times espousing a return of educational decisions to the individual states, particularly the No Child Left Behind law.
Alexander thinks that near 80% of American schools will soon fail to meet progress standards of No Child. No Child confers a ton on schools and teachers as they compare results with all 50 states. No Child is basically an outcome-based accounting system.
Alexander and his colleagues want to return the progress standards and proficiency monitoring to the states. He thinks states are more sensitive to needs, and more nimble, when it comes to dealing with shortcomings. You have to agree with that general position. It makes sense to me that you work more efficiency with a smaller unit. However, individual states are encumbered with selfish interests, teachers unions, and education establishments as much as the federal government. Alexander knows this quite well in the establishment of reforms here in Tennessee while governor.
While governor of Tennessee in the mid-eighties the Alexander administration established what is called a Master Teacher Plan. This was a graduated pay bump that awarded teachers on competency and student achievement. It was over a hundred million dollar deal. The plan called attention to the fact that teachers have different qualities and should be compensated approximately. The teachers union (TEA) opposed the plan. This was good reform for the upside, but it did not adequately address the downside, or how do you get rid of sorry teachers. Tennessee is still waiting for that reform. The current Haslem administration initated and passed some tenure reform. It did not go far enough, but it was a start.
America needs former Georgia football player Fran Tarkenton to establish meaningful tenure reform. Tarkenton wrote a recent piece, published in the Wall Street Journal, that compared education and teacher standards to the National Football League players. Every teachers union in the country should spend some time with Tarkenton’s thoughts.
Although I appreciate school reformers, I would like to see politicians move from schools and dig a little deeper into our education failures. Politicians have found it convenient to address the schools and particularly classrooms in curing education deficiencies. There are always votes to gather too. At the local level, the solutions are generally similar; give teachers more money and build new buildings with better air conditioners.
But, true and meaningful reform is a far larger and more complex problem. I end to think that if you improve education results you must change the culture. That’s heavy ! We might be expecting more out of schools than schools can immediately deliver. So, what do I mean be culture ? The short answer is those powerful influences on children, away from school, that affect their learning capabilities. If so, there must be more things to fix than just the classroom. Frequently, you see statistics as to how children in Asia are outperforming American children in specific areas of education. Maybe it is math scores or reading scores. There is a common thread in the comparison of skills. Invariably, the countries our students are compared against do not share the handicap of affluence. The combination of our affluence and the welfare state must be diminishing the necessity to succeed in the classroom and elsewhere. This is not to say that many do overcome these handicaps and do succeed. What will it take to overcome the handicap of affluence and equip our children to survive in a rapidly changing world ? A more Spartan world. There are obvious culture and educational reforms to work on outside the classroom. A few of these are:
___Far and away the most significant detriment to learning, for those affected, is divorce, and assorted calamities such as spousal abuse, child abuse, split-family conflicts, and any other non-love or non-home condition that emotionally detracts from education results. Numerous studies are available that tracks the emotional impact on learning that arises from broken homes. Some states are trying to address the frequency of divorce; now at about on half of all marriages.
___Today, children 8-18 spend 71/2 hours per day with entertainment media, according to a study be the Kaiser Foundation. This is rising noticeably with minority children, who use more media than whites. Sometimes, they use more than one media at the same time. As a comparison, children spend 25 minutes a day reading books. Most children across the globe do not have the time nor the media for 71/2 hours of entertainment. Some American children have televisions, computers, iPods, cell phones, and MP3 players. Distractions of this magnitude must be a detriment to learning.
___ American children always seem to find money for alcohol and drugs. When you are talking about alcohol and drugs and teenagers you are mainly talking about beer. Statistically, beer dwarfs other beverages and substances. The use numbers on alcohol start rising in the 10th grade. At the 12th grade it reaches 65% of students who have used alcohol in the past year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Alcohol is generally freely dispensed everywhere. The acceptance of beer, as a neutral beverage, marketed in grocery stores, where young school-age children shop with their mothers, is the greatest public relations coup in my lifetime. There was a time when the dispensing of alcohol, even beer, was more guarded for all kinds of common sense reasons. Marketing was generally done in dedicated establishments. Everyone associated with education, in any way, can testify that alcohol and drugs take a great toll, even beyond the grade cards.
Alcohol beverage reform in Tennessee is politically insulated and it’s been that way for decades. It is rare to see even a raised voice to alcohol’s proliferation and the harmful effect on school children.
___Education reformers at the national and even the state level focus on improving results in reading, math, and science. Most obviously, these have basic merit, but don’t have a monopoly on merit. Until the last few years I have not read much creative thinking about curriculum. But, those who do question what we are teaching may be relegated to left field thinkers. Yet, we need pioneer thought in education.
Curriculum’s must become aware of a rapidly changing ecological world. We are living in a world of 7 billion people and a world of creeping scarcity of basic goods and materials. Curriculum’s must gravitate toward serving basic human needs. This must range from agriculture to the arts. It might involve teaching long forgotten skills. I believe the future will rely more heavily on the individual and his personal attributes and less in a collective perspective.
___It is not uncommon nowadays to find college students in their junior and even senior year that have not decided on a general work career. Maybe they have changed their major two or three times. If students wait until they are 21to zero in on a career they will probably be at a competitive disadvantage.
So, when should students start thinking career ? I believe the earlier the better ! The larger question is what role schools should make in forcing an early decision. First of all students should be exposed to various career possibilities very early. So, maybe in the early teens, at the middle school level all students should be exposed to occupations in a classroom setting with academic credit for the class. This is a culture change and would be unlike career counseling common in most high schools.
Once a career path is determined students should have the option to pursue a designated curriculum to complete their dream. Obviously, some students will change their field of study. This is still the land of the free. All I am saying is that there are distinct advantages from an early decision.
___Ironically, America has jobs, but not enough applicants in a work environment of 91/2% unemployment. Much of this mismatch of skills and work opportunities is attributed to education. Maybe we have too much behind the curve schooling. There is too little school accounting, something No Child sought to address and correct. The welfare state thrives on career opportunities without a work force. Politicians like to talk about “jobs, jobs,jobs”, but the reality is our unemployment is structural and educational. Any government stimulus, at best, can provide relief; but no cure. Educational reforms can, with some degree of accuracy, move the educational system closer to the projected future, both for the broad culture and careers.
I do believe our most vexing educational problems are cultural in nature. We are a rich people by the world’s standards. But, why can’t we be rich without being indulgent and profligate ? We could address the conditions that I have mentioned, without violating our basic rights as American citizens. If there is legal uncertainties, politicians could, with passion adopt the “bully pulpit” and denounce our more salient weakness. After all. we have national campaigns against smoking, obesity, and soft drinks. It makes no sense to me to work on the periphery of our problems.