Friday, April 29, 2005

A modest proposal for the reform of education

Here in Montana, we are trying to deal with the weasel words of "quality education," as written by polticians and defined by lawyers, and what the impact would be on the State's financial situation. So, to the average person, what does a "quality education" mean? For that matter, what is it that should be taught to students, and how should it be delivered to them?
In examining our present system of education, it is amazing that no one states the obvious, that our education system is based on and Industrial Age model, trying to teach kids for the Information Age. Right now, our kids are being trained to work in factories. Their foreman (teacher) instructs them on the plant's tasks, and then leads them through the process until the scheduled task is over, and onto a new task when it is mandated according to the clock. To further make the students compliant with the required change of industrial activity, every year they are reorganized into new work groups for new tasks when they are advanced to the next grade.
There are some holdovers from the Pre-Industrial Age. Students are let out of school every summer, so that they can work on tending the crops, and bringing in the harvest. No one seems to notice that less than 3% of the population of this country live on farms.
The current debate seems to focus on the amount of spending and the formulation of how that spending takes place. Under our present (pre-reform) system, the State of Montana provides approximately $7,000 per student per year. in a 25 student classroom, that means $175,000 per classroom per year. Multiply by 20 classrooms, and you are talking $3.5 million per year. Now, you have to remember, that this is only the State's portion. Not taking into account any federal money, grants, local mill levies, etc. Of course, to question the idea that more money is needed is to be accused of being miserly toward our future. What no one who does know will do, is to actually explain where the money goes to. If you figure that a teacher makes ony $24K per year, with another $14K for benefits, taxes, etc. and you have used less than 25% of the money that the State allocates. Add in building maintenance, supplies, support staff, and overhead management, and it is still difficult to account for all of the spending that is done.
Further, an analysis of dollars spent, shows that North Dakota, which is in the bottom of the spending scale, gets better results than Wansington D.C. which is at the top. So, do dollars spent automtically measure results? There are complicating factors and variables that are too difficult to control for, but money spent seems be only a minor factor in measuring success.
If we look at history, at least in this state, some of the most successful students came from one room school houses. In those schools, students from the entire age spectrum worked and learned together. The advantage of the system, was that the older students helped to teach the younger ones. In order to teach, you have to know it first. The older students also formed a bond with the younger ones, and acted as mentors, helping to develop a sense of community and shared responsibility.
So, could we do the same thing in the present day? Absolutely. To set up a modern version of the one room school house, let's take teachers and give them 12 to 14 students apiece. The students will be with the same teacher throughout their elementary education career. The advantage being that the student and the teacher will be able to form a bond, and the students will be able to form bonds with other students.
This system would finally allow teachers to become professionals, and not just factory foremen. They would be able to exercise their independent judgment in accomplishing the goals that they have for the students.
Everyone has had a favorite teacher, and teachers have had favorite students. Suppose you could be with your favorite teacher for your entire educational career. Don't you think that you could learn more? Don't you also think that a teacher who knows what your strengthas and weaknesses and take advantage of the strengths, and overcome the weaknesses.
The problem is that this solution is different than what the powers that be want to do. Someday, I hope that my grandchildren will have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the students of Socrates and Aristotle. Maybe then, we will teach kids how to think, not just know.

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