Vail Daily letter: Definition of insanity |

Vail Daily letter: Definition of insanity

Jim Cameron
Avon, CO Colorado

Recently, I met a fellow, Ph.D. educated, who had been a school superintendent in New York for many years. I asked him what was wrong with our educational system in the U.S. and what he would do to correct it. He had a lot to say, much of which, coincidentally, was mirrored in the editorial column of the Dec. 15 edition of USA Today.

That editorial referenced the latest results of the International Student Assessment survey, which ranks high school student test scores around the world. The U.S. ranked 15th or worse in key categories such as reading, science and math. Who had the No. 1 ranking across the board? Shanghai.

Anyone want to render a guess of what our country will be like in 20, 30, 40 years from now with that kind of ranking, or likely a ranking that will grow worse during those years if our educational system is not seriously overhauled? Think in terms of third rate – if we are lucky. To quote the editorial, the top ranked such as Shanghai, Finland and Canada have “educational systems …. built on common-sense approaches that too often are alien concepts in the USA.”

So, what are the differences? Nearly all developed countries have a national, standardized curriculum. “Students are taught the same subjects, in the same order, using the same course materials. That allows teachers and students to build on knowledge gained in earlier grades. In the U.S., even the teachers in the same schools – let alone those in different districts or states – might not teach the same lessons in the same grade. That means some students are taught the same material repeatedly while others get left behind.”

In our system, the states, cities and school districts control the educational process. In fact, the Tea Party and many of its favored candidates in the last election campaigned with a stated objective to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education (among others). Why? Because there is nothing in the Constitution that provides for a federal role in the education of its population. Hey, if it ain’t in the Constitution … . To borrow a theme from Jeff Foxworthy, you know you are a redneck when you are dumber than dirt and proud of it. And there’s the sign.

Our federal efforts in public education seem to be solely focused on standardized testing. That is a solid part of a good educational system, but that’s attacking the back end of the process. We need to put our emphasis on the front end, where the learning actually occurs. Of course, that means we need a national, standardized curriculum. The far right would fight this tooth and nail. Every Christian group would levitate right out of their pews. What? Take educational decisions out of the local neighborhoods and churches? Blasphemy!

The USA editorial pointed out that teachers in the highly ranked cities/countries are well paid and highly respected in that profession. Teacher unions were mentioned by my Ph.D. acquaintance as well as the editorial as a particular problem. However, two of the highly ranked countries, Finland and Canada, have strong teachers unions. The answer to this is painfully obvious but incredibility difficult to adopt. Pay, job security and advancement should be based on merit and not seniority. But how do you measure merit in our current system? Standardized testing is not the answer when Jeff Foxworthy disciples are in charge of the curriculum. Better that we give standardized tests to parents to measure their parenting abilities.

Another difference in our educational system vs. everywhere else, is that everywhere else differentiates the abilities of its students at an early age (at about 12). Those that pass the test move on to an accelerated learning track (China has an even more selective process). Those that don’t pass enter a period of further academic learning and then learn a trade. This differentiation works if you have a national curriculum. Would this work here? Sorry Mrs. Jones, we’ve determined that your son is best suited to be a welder.

There is a political corollary to all this, but you have to connect some dots. The wealthy don’t care about the quality of public education. For them it is a throw-away. Their kids go to private schools. They want a voucher system to help them defray the cost of private school education. Even the middle class wants a voucher system so they can select the best public school districts. Anything to get away from the riff raff. Just a further pick up and drop off duty for Mom.

There is an answer to this. It starts with a national standard curriculum in the public school system. With that in place we can then reward teachers based on merit. We can also empower teachers to reclaim discipline in their own classrooms. Like the European countries we should do testing at an early age that separates the high achievers from those that aren’t and puts them on separate tracks. One of the benefits of this is that those who are taught a trade acquire skills to make a living. And yes, the world will always need welders.

For those who don’t want to send their kids to the “new” public school system, give them tax credits for home or private schooling to offset taxes they pay for the public system. You will note that this system separates the financing of our educational system from property taxes. I can’t think of a more perverse system than paying for schools and teachers with property taxes. This ensures that the well off districts provide the best education and poor neighborhoods continue to get the worst. Those that are worried about creating a perpetual welfare class ought to take a look at this issue.

Will any of this come to pass? No chance. We are a very parochial country. We will continue to do the same things that are failing us now and in the past in the hopes that we will get a different outcome. Einstein had a word for this.

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