Friday, June 18, 2010

Is It Time To Consider Education Reform?

Is it time to re-think how we educate our children? I am not talking about the normal tweaks to curriculum and classroom instructional delivery – but real reform. As the husband of a kindergarten teacher, the brother of a high school administrator, and one who has many friends who work diligently in the education profession, my thoughts in this column are not to be taken as criticism. I do offer them in the full hope that the topic will become one of deep and reflective thought that then transcends into a community dialogue for all of us who continue to work in making our community the very best it can be.

I mentioned last week that I had just returned from a two-day conference hosted by the Southern Growth Policies Board. Amazingly as each presenter offered recommendations for strengthening and growing the automobile manufacturing sector in the south, the recurring theme was the need for workforce development. Gov. Joe Manchin made the boldest statement of them all. I am paraphrasing, but he basically said that as a society, we spend more on education than any other public service, and our return on investment is unacceptable.

I would agree with the Governor that we spend tremendous resources on educating our children. I would further agree that the return on investment across the nation is inadequate. But I would disagree that great strides are not being made in many communities across our great nation. And those that are making tremendous improvements are doing things differently. They are implementing reforms consistently as the data suggests they should. They are no different than a sports team or business organization that implements change as the performance data suggests they should.

Education as an institution is typically very slow to change. Not because data is not available for making substantive change, but typically because of the politics surrounding such an emotional and passionate institution. But as the data suggest and companies validate, the US education system is not preparing the employees of tomorrow. Our children come out of high school not prepared to work in the jobs of today or tomorrow.

I would suggest two reforms are needed to course correct our direction as a nation. The first reform would be to adopt a balanced or modified school calendar. This balanced calendar is also known as year-round schooling. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book the Outliers, he describes a Baltimore, Maryland study that provides substantial evidence that the traditional calendar contributes to the achievement gap that exist between low-income students and those with higher means.

The study basically argues that children of low income households have little access to educational learning when not in school. Those with means tend to go to camp, have access to books, and visit museums and libraries in the summer months. The over-whelming number of other studies document that year-round learning is positive for educational maintenance and educational improvement.

If the evidence is so profound that a balanced or modified calendar delivers better achievement, why are there so few school districts / schools choosing such a calendar? There are many arguments but two seem to be the most used: a non-traditional calendar interferes with sports, band, and other extracurricular activities, and a year-round calendar interferes with those students who have to or choose to work.

Given all the financial resources we expend to improve the educational achievement of our children, modifying the school calendar is very inexpensive. Consider the physical infrastructure of a school? It is idle or dormant 31% of the time. No business would invest capital in something they were only going to use two-thirds of the time. Why should we invest tax revenue just as inefficiently?

In this day when budgets are requiring school districts to resort to cutting instructional days, a modified calendar could allow learning maintenance to remain at a higher level and for actual learning improvement to occur across shorter breaks instead of the “traditional” summer months. I know that teachers and possibly their unions could be opposed to a modified, year-round calendar, but many I know personally actually endorse this approach.

Another area of reform needed is in the area of technical education. All students must be educated to standards that will enable them to succeed in any post-secondary institution. But all high school graduates will not go to a traditional four-year baccalaureate college. But employers argue that today’s jobs and especially those of tomorrow require education / training above the high school level.

We have tried all types of vocational school models and technical school models with most failing to deliver real talent for the workforce. Expediency wins out over effectiveness. A case in point – because we have a certified cosmetology teacher, and because many students think cosmetology is fun, we offer this curriculum above and beyond what the market can support. And then the problem is compounded when we ignore real needs of industry by not partnering with them in offering training for jobs that are in high demand.

In our local economy, there are urgent needs for training for industrial electricians and industrial mechanics. As Volkswagon and its suppliers ramp up production, those skilled in robotics will be needed. Welders are in constant demand. Consider that the sedan that Volkswagon will produce in Chattanooga will have over 3800 rivets, welders become very important.

Given the tremendous gains our local districts have delivered in educational attainment, and the fruit being produced by the new curriculum developed by the Georgia State Board of Education, we can catapult to nationally respected heights by breaking from the mold in the final two areas. Considering a year-round calendar and really instituting technical education that is market driven will set us apart from our fellow Georgia communities and those across the US.

We have important elections in the next few weeks that will allow for this dialogue to occur or not. Get to know the candidates seeking office and ask them the hard questions about education in our community. We have always been a leading community in entrepreneurial spirit. What could we accomplish if we embraced that same spirit in driving education reform?

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