Education – What matters (second in a series)

Democratic Presidential candidate, Howard Dean says,

“Today the President used his weekly radio address to praise his education bill, No Child Left Behind. Behind his glowing rhetoric is an unfortunate reality: Another broken promise by this President, who
has broken his pledge to fund the statute’s new demands, creating crushing burdens for local school
boards and teachers throughout America. The funding is simply not there, and local leaders already burdened by widespread federal program cuts and strains created by mismanagement of the economy are struggling to find new resources to pay the bill. All too often, the only solution is to raise property and state taxes, giving lie to the notion that this President is a tax cutter. He is simply a tax shifter.”

What really matters is that we are creating environments where children become adults and citizens, and we really should be thinking about what kinds of adults and citizens we want. We should be willing to invest in creating those environments where those future Americans, those future Minnesotans, will emerge. Perhaps we can’t agree on everything, but there ought to be some things we all see as important and vital to our human existence together and our commitment to democracy.

School size is a key factor in creating an environment where students either know and care about what happens to each other or are anonymous to each other and could care less what happens to the other. Drug use, bullying and other forms of school violence are all related to this often ignored, often money driven issue of school size. It seems that some fundamental notions need to be challenged, such as: Is bigger really cheaper in the long runif you consider the cost in hours of time lost to controlling students rather than teaching them. We must ask: What are the costs of education and what are we hoping to accomplish by schooling? What do these huge institutions prepare them for?? Will our expenditures move us toward those goals?

The most well funded educational system in the country is not in school, but is in almost every home, and that is the electronic media. Television, computer games, the internet does more to shape the young minds and attitudes that will create our citizenry than almost any school can. The only thing that is stronger, and thankfully, that the media can never duplicate, is a positive and nurturing relationship. We as a society are not inclined to ask to what purpose this system has in educating our children. But it’s hard to compete with television – the number of hours children watch before ever entering a classroom is astounding.

One of my heroes, Deborah Meier
has written extensively about teaching for democracy and how crucial small schools and attention to developing working relationships are to this important goal. The testing craze cannot improve on class size and working relationships and may well distract from their influence through misplaced effort. She argues for the importance of engaging parents and the need to empower parents to
advocate for their children in school.

We don’t have to wait until kindergarten either — one of Paul Wellstone‘s

favorite topics was the importance of early childhood education and that it is necessary not only for the children, but for the struggling parents of those children who need early childhood programs. It’s well documented the long-term savings these programs provide, but yet there continues to be opposition to spending money on these programs and instead they’re spending money on measuring success at the end of the educational process when little can be done.

W. Edwards Deming, a respected expert on quality, argued that little could be done to improve quality
if you only looked at the end of the process. He encouraged businesses to examine all aspects of their process to determine how they might improve their product. He also urged businesses to give greater trust to workers doing the work. Why? Because workers are the ones with the greatest likelihood of knowing what needs improvement and how to improve it. The secret to quality lies in how to empower workers to see it and do something about it. The alternative to worker empowered quality would be to rely on some distant administrator, or politician in the political realm, who could only imagine what the job would be like and in the abstract try to improve it, based on end result data rather than data taken along the way. It doesn’t work in business, and it doesn’t work in education. Teachers need to be given the tools and the ability to adjust to the learning needs and progress of students. In some cases this can be a test, but a test with specific student focused goals, not arbitrary mass testing that then is used for other suspect purposes.

If we are serious about school improvement, we should provide the resources for early intervention, smaller school environments where people can truly know and invest in each other, the means to engage parents locally, help teachers develop the skills and tools to assess student progress, and communicate these goals and methods clearly to parents.

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