Saturday, March 13, 2010

Education - where do we start?

A few days ago I wrote an opinion regarding the education crisis here in the US and left off saying that we need an educational revolution to match our technical one. That begs the question, where do we start?

While colleges and universities are gathering a great deal of press recently with protests, etc. - this is the ultimate goal not the groundwork. In my opinion, we need to start where our children start - grade level education.

Grade level education is a polarizing issue. Unfortunately, politics get involved at all levels. To keep music in elementary school or not. To build the new football stadium for the high school or not. To have Algebra in middle school or not. Each of these questions is answered by, in most cases, an elected body of individuals who each have their own feelings as a parent or teacher or business person - but in all cases they are politicians at their core. They ran for office and were elected based on a platform they put forth during their campaign. These are not necessarily individuals who have studied education, nor have they necessarily studied the educational, business and technological trends that should influence what our children learn as base knowledge that they must then build on to become successful members of our society. Rather, these are individuals who have a strong opinion about something and were willing to go out in front of people to try to grab their support and succeeded. Unfortunately, this is not always the best move forward.

When I was growing up the majority of my schools were governed by school boards that were placed into their positions rather than elected. These individuals had the freedom to do what was right for the schools rather than what was politically right for them. I am not saying that all school board members are out for what's best for themselves, just that politics has to be a motivating factor when you run for office and perhaps is not the best motivating factor when you are charged with guiding the knowledge of so many children of our next generation.

Let's take Texas for instance. Yes - that lovely state that has now dictated their world view and forced the text book companies to comply. The elected school board that voted along party lines to change the textbooks to include Creationism over Evolution and that we are a Christian nation over the separation of Church and State. They have even removed Thomas Jefferson from the role of 18th century writers of note and stated that the US version of Capitalism is supreme over all other governmental and economic models. (The New York Times article about this can be found here.)

Then there's Kansas City, MO who has had to make the unimaginable decision to close down nearly half their schools because they can't afford them.

Or Rhode Island firing all the teachers at a high school because they are considered an "under performing" school.

These last two were mentioned in a video report on recently as part of what some states are doing to compete (emphasis on the word compete) for a part of a stimulus pot put out by the Department of Education (mostly non-political officials here, but still politically based organization). Rhode Island is still in the running, but MO is not.

So - again - how do we fix this. The first step, I believe, is to stop treating education like a political ball and to start treating it as the important basis for the future of our country that it is. Create a national Board of Education, in the manner of the Federal Reserve, where the head of the Board and it's members are vetted by the President and confirmed by Congress for a term that is longer than a Presidential term. Then give that Board the leeway to set educational priorities in this country and a standard of education in all fields based on economic, scientific, technical and industrial trends as well as a standard base of historical and literary knowledge for all children attending school in the US - public and private.

How would we standardize - through text book requirements that cannot be budged by states as well as through tests that actually have teeth and merit rather than the current testing strategy.

Now - first question. How do we take into account State's rights while demanding a specific text book standard? Easy - if you want to add to the standard, you can, but you cannot CHANGE or REMOVE the standard. This goes for states, private institutions and home schooling situations. Standard = standard = standard as in the same for everyone. How do you enforce that - the same way federal highway standards are enforced, money. If you want to have federal funds to help with your state education needs you must have the following:

* Teachers who pass a national exam and continue their education yearly.
* Teach the federally mandated standards in your classrooms openly and without prejudice. (You can also teach other theories and state or locally mandated standards if you wish, but you must teach the federal standards WITHOUT prejudice.)
* Have open education for all.
* Have Parent Teacher programs and include parents in their children's education.
* Give national tests at the end of specified years to ensure that national objectives are being met and to assist children and their parents in guiding their education appropriately.

As a country we also need to:

* Have national teaching standards and licensing so a teacher educated in one state can teach in any state.
* Make teaching a profession worth aspiring to with a salary worthy of their education and experience. (In other words get rid of the notion "Those who can do, those who can't teach." Always hated that notion and as the product of a family full of educators and a former teacher think it's total BS.)
* Look to other countries, take the best of what they have to offer and make it our own.

My husband would also add - "Make parents responsible for their children's education to the point of punishment if they are not involved." While I don't agree with jail time for parents who aren't involved for various reasons, you have to admit there are a number of parents who cannot be involved and our children have suffered for it. Parental involvement is a must if our children are to successfully be the basis of our future.

Interestingly enough, President Obama dedicated his Saturday Morning video address to education this morning. While I don't agree with the current "Race to the Top" program currently being run by the Department of Education because I don't think anything as important as our country's educational system should be treated like a game show, it is a step in the right direction. I look forward to hearing how the current administration is going to change "No Child Left Behind" and hope that the changes are radical enough to make a difference.

We cannot hope to improve our university systems until we improve the basis for those universities. In my mind, the best way to do that is to start everyone at the same point - national standards for learning and teaching - and move from there.

OK - now that you've heard my opinion, what's yours? Please keep it civil and be open to discourse. Thank you.

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