As we look back on 2010, education has certainly been one of the most talked about subjects of the year.  “Waiting for Superman” stirred up the reform debate yet again, though it has been charging on long before that film was even conceived.  Many educational think tanks, bloggers and news commentators have acknowledged the problems, but there has been a severe lack of pushing forward in terms of educational innovation.  In a recent article in the LA Times, the solution seems to be not in curriculum, discipline or even administration.  Instead, many seem to think the only way to fix what is broken in our educational system is a change in operations.  Changing the ways in which teachers are hired and fired, how schools receive funding, what the measurements for success are and even when schools are open.  Rather than focusing on teaching, we instead need to focus on the basic tenets of schools purpose and function.

In support of such a shift is a guest author on my blog today, John Myers.  Below, you’ll find his ideas for beginning to fix this educational mess we’re in.  He is just one of many to throw his hat in the ring for a true message of “change”.  In full disclosure here, I’ll also mention that he happens to be my father.  So, in the true spirit of this blog, I’ll address his points and you’ll get to experience a taste of what some of our family dinners might sound like.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you…..

Solve the American Education problem. The first step is to admit we have a problem. I think you can demonstrate that by showing that we have not been able to increase test scores in our system in 30 years, despite increasing per pupil spending (in real terms – inflation adjusted) by unbelievable amounts. We have lost discipline and respect. Kids enter the work world completely ill-prepared, even after the now obligatory 4 yrs of college. The result is America is losing an advantage in productivity in it’s workforce.

What to do? Here is an idea……

  • Eliminate the ‘summer vacation’ – allow family flex time for vacations and teacher substitutions, but use the building year-round.
  • Use the added 25% of the year to complete 12 grades of standard education in 10 years…..similar to the old 8 yr standard with 4 more being “secondary education” – but in this case, augment what is being taught in 12 grades. Add some courses and change the rules on discipline – get serious about it. And, eliminate the unions and tenure that protects poor performance and provides no incentive for excellence
  • Create a new 2 year program, publicly funded. The new middle step would incorporate many of the Community College programs and augment vocational and college prep. For kids learning a trade, partner in new apprenticeship programs where they get real world experience and get a certificate that means something that moves them into a paying job. For nursing, ditto. For light management candidates, create a 2 yr training program And, for true college bound kids going into medicine, lawyering, education and so – they get two years to jump start college – get the basic courses now wasted on college campuses out of the way. Teachers get their masters in 4 yrs, not 6. Docs gain 2 yrs getting to residence and so on. Imagine how we could advance our productivity, eliminate the college fall-out and wasted money and time. The added space at colleges could be devoted to getting back to true university level public domain research in lieu of corporate funded justification research.
  • Now, in full testament to how our public education system works, below is the response from American Thinker Magazine, to whom my dad sent his submission:

    Hi John,

    Your ideas may well be sound, but this submission covers a lot of ground with not enough supporting data and arguments. We prefer to have arguments sustained with more fact and analysis than this provides. That said, you program may be quite a good one. However, it is completely unclear how such a change could be brought about (the politics are a critical part for the plan).

    Obviously, American Thinker Magazine thinks the idea has merit, but it’s that age-old issue in education: you need the DATA to support any reasonable idea you may have.  So let’s go see if we can find some, shall we?

    Year round schooling is not a new concept.  In fact, the United States has been tinkering with it since the 1800’s.  Back then, it was used mostly as a way to address English language instruction concerns for immigrant children.  The idea resurfaced in the 1960’s and 70’s as a way to address overcrowding concerns in the cities of Chicago and LA.  The program never took hold, however, because labor industries needed cheap student help in the factories over the summer (Bussard and McCreary, 1998).  Which brings me to my main problem with John’s overall idea: the public gets in the way of the public in education.

    Public opinion over year-round schooling is varied, but mostly it is one of outcry.  “Don’t take away my child’s summer!  Summers are for the kids!  They grow up too soon as it is!” is the way most parents perceive summer time.  They have this romanticized idea that summers involve family vacations, kids playing together in the neighborhood until the sun sets, running through sprinklers and generally getting lots of free play time and sleeping long peaceful warm nights.  While that makes the stuff for movies, it just doesn’t happen that much anymore.  With both parents working in many households in order to pay the bills, summer vacations are hard to take right now.  And, with the recent upticks in crime, child abductions and abuse, parents are less willing to just dump their kids outside for an afternoon to play the day away unattended until nightfall.  Most children are enrolled in at least 2-3 activities throughout the summer months anyway as a way to keep them busy.  So why not put that time to better use through year-round schooling?  Because the kids need time to play…..

    How about that data supporting the strides children could make academically if we kept them in school year-round?  Many reports indicate that higher SAT scores would result from a cyclical school year, and the issue of student information retention would be a thing of the past.  If this were the case, then John would be right in assuming that students could then increase their academic load, graduate high school early and get basic college coursework completed by 12th grade.  This is already being accomplished through IB course tracks in many high schools, but it is only available to the honors-level students.  With year-round schooling, it would be assumed that more students would be able to have access to this course track.  However, the difficulty now comes back to that nagging thing of “teaching”.  Students who are struggling learners are still going to have difficulty learning regardless of how long they go to school.  The case could also be made that these students will be even more frustrated with school and not want or be ready to learn if they are forced to go year-round.  The teachers that they have make all the difference to these children.  Research tells us time and again that the biggest influence on whether a student succeeds in the classroom is their teacher.  So a plan for revamping the educational system cannot be in place without addressing teacher quality, professional development, and mentoring programs for the teaching profession.  Summers are a time when many teachers go to graduate school, take continuing education courses and go to conferences.  When will that occur with year-round schooling?

    Finally, let’s address the political ramifications of this concept.  “Race to the Top” is the newest initiative to come down the pike in a long line of educational initiatives from the government.  NCLB is still in place and much has been written about the disastrous effects of that program.  Nowhere in the Constitution is it written that a public education is guaranteed.  However, the federal government insists on sticking its nose into education since the inception of the current Department of Education in the 70’s by Jimmy Carter.  Federal dollars go to public education, therefore, the Federal government gets a say.  And ever since it’s had a say, the programs have been getting worse and worse.  The best thing the Obama administration could do at this point is to take a hands off approach, give the states the power to develop their own programs and then reward those states that continuously show progress and innovation as model states for others to learn from.  But that won’t happen.  Instead, every President wants to be the one who “fixes” education.  So Race to the Top is going to push for accountability and reward states that show innovation and progress, mostly by changing the teacher evaluation process and tenure issues.  While that may be a step in the right direction, it doesn’t address the real concerns brought about by John’s argument.  Students are losing information after long lapses of time off.  Countries are soaring ahead of the US in innovation, science, math and technology because their students use a cyclical learning approach AND teachers are treated as highly trained professionals that receive continuous professional development, mentoring, and peer review processes.  To fix education without both sides in that equation in this country will be almost impossible.  Our students must have access to the best teachers, the most innovative programs AND be present for a longer period of time in schools (year-round) in order for us to move forward.  The time is now, but will the public get in the public’s way yet again?  I certainly hope not – we know what public opinion can do for us.  Bad reality shows, inept politicians, and lowered moral standards.  Let’s get the public out of the way of public education and get to the business of fixing right this time around.