Farm house at dusk, circa 1880. McDonald and his wife on porch swing.
McDonald: Crop came in good.
Missus: School time for the young ’uns then.
McDonald: I s’pose. But I still don’t know why we send ’em.
Missus: Government says we gotta. ’Sides, not much to do here in winter.
Silly farmers, circa 1880. Everyone knows why we send kids to school, even if we don’t all remember the 99 stirring words of the state’s learning goals: “Read with comprehension, write effectively. . . communicate successfully . . . Know and apply . . . concepts and principles of mathematics; social, physical and life sciences; civics and history . . . geography; arts; and health and fitness. Think analytically, logically and creatively and . . . integrate technology . . as well as different experiences . . . Understand . . . work and finance.”
That covers it, I think. Plus kids still have time to plow.
And how’s it going? Not bad. Of course, a third of the students who start high school don’t finish and probably another third finish but can’t spell – much less define – their learning goals. Most of these will become farmhands. Of those who graduate, only half continue their education. But instead of citizens storming school board meetings with pitchforks, the school reform debate has devolved into a food fight about charter schools, much ado about nothing. (Shakespeare: Concept or Principle? Discuss.)
I’m a public school veteran. I attended them, and so did my kids. I studied to teach high school but chickened out. And I helped start a parents’ advocacy group called Great Schools Tacoma. Silly parents, circa 1985. Everyone knows schools won’t ever be great.
I exaggerate, in an effort to communicate successfully. America’s math and science performance recently blew past both Belarus and a former Belgian colony in Africa that keeps changing its name. And Tacoma schools were recently designated an “innovation zone,” meaning schools can experiment without lots of state approvals.
That’s good, right? Innovation. Oh, yeah. Let the games begin.
Not so good, actually, for several reasons. First, we don’t need more experimentation. We have millions of pages of research on improving schools. It’s unlikely the French teacher at Mount Tahoma, for example, will create an education breakthrough. (Though apparently the guillotine really helps kids focus.) We don’t need more ideas. We need excellent execution of the best – proven – ideas out there.
Second, the school district is a system, not a conglomerate with 50 independent units. We can’t have an elementary school try new math and a middle school experiment with really new math and the high school innovate with Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (“the break-through kinesthetic math curriculum!”). Kids need a continuous intellectual path, not 12 years of hopscotch.
Third, parents are easily confused. Trust me. I know. Turning the district into a hothouse with different flowers blooming in different classrooms will discourage, not increase, parents’ involvement in their kids’ education. Involvement such as helping on homework or discussing a principle of social sciences at dinner.
Fourth, we need civic consensus on McDonald’s question: Why send kids to school? Broadly we probably agree on three purposes: to make them smart, as my mother would say; to help them be economically viable; and to be good citizens. But we also need a core curriculum driven by those purposes, a canon if you will. We don’t need hundreds of educators going off in hundreds of directions.
So this fall, after the crops are in and the young’uns return to school, I hope Tacoma’s educators and business and civic leaders and parents (and students? Could we actually consult with students?) bring together their huge but diffused talent and energy and craft a single, coherent plan to improve our schools.
Silly Ken, circa 2012. Hope is for kids.Ken Miller doesn’t claim to be an A student. One of six reader columnists whose work appears on this page, he has been active in the Tacoma community for more than 40 years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.