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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Organized Abandonment

This year has certainly provided me with a “moving” experience. I’ll try to explain how these moves are related to curriculum and educational goals and the plight of public schools
In late August, soon after accepting the position as superintendent of schools for the Green Island Union Free School District, my wife and I purchased a home in the area so I would be able to become more involved in school and community activities outside of the normal school day. That required our first move of the year. We boxed up, taped, and transferred the possessions that had slowly and mysteriously accumulated over the nineteen years we lived in that particular house. Neither of us had any idea of how much stuff we had until we started filling boxes. There was way too much to move. Of course, all of my things were important and essential for either monetary or sentimental reasons, so the pile of boxes was her fault. Naturally, she eyed the large number of boxes and pointed her finger at me as the person responsible for so many boxes. (I admit my guilt, there were over forty boxes of books)
Next, our daughter moved into our former house in September. That meant more boxes, tape, furniture, scheduling a moving van, lifting and loading (and taking aspirin for the back aches) as we emptied her apartment and unpackaged her pots, pans, plates and clothes and everything else. It was a hectic weekend.
Finally, this last weekend I went to New York City to help our son relocate. He’s moving in with us, after seven years in Brooklyn, while he awaits deployment with the Peace Corps to an assignment in Eastern Europe this coming March. That resulted in carrying boxes and furniture through narrow halls and crooked stairways, filling up a U-Haul truck, and navigating it through the streets of New York City and up the highway to Troy.
I learned that each time a person moves they should take advantage of a great opportunity to re-evaluate possessions and priorities and determine if the items are worth the time, energy, and effort it takes to move them. We ended up donating many articles of clothing and household items (even books) to the Salvation Army. We had to dispose of things that once were important to keep and interesting enough to purchase, but are no longer valued or needed today.  Not only did we eliminate unnecessary possessions, but we created storage space for new things we might need in the future.
Now, what does all of this have to do with the challenges of public schools? Think back to when you attended school. I graduated from high school almost forty years ago. I studied the same subjects that our current Heatly High learners are studying. Furthermore, I spent the same amount of time in class then as they do now – 45 minutes per period in each of 180 days of school. Now, think about that for a moment. Think about everything that’s happened in science and history and literature in the forty years since I studied those subjects and today, as the present high school learners study the same subjects. It’s been claimed that science content doubles every decade. Thank goodness I didn't have to study nanosecond technology or genetic engineering or the many other advances in science since the early 1970's!! The learners of 2010 have the same amount of time to study American history, for example, as I did despite all of the dramatic events that have occurred since I graduated from high school. There have been discoveries and disasters, tremendous growth and impact of technology, significant political changes, sweeping social transformations, wars of terrorism and ideology, ravaging natural catastrophes, economic recessions, medical advances, and so much more. 
The question arises – if the learners of today have the same limited amount of time, in hours and days, to study the same subjects as you and I did years ago – what’s left out. They can’t possibly be examining everything I studied, plus what’s happened in the forty years since. We can’t simply continue to acquire more, just like my wife and I can’t keep filling more and more boxes of items unless we either buy a bigger house or become more efficient in storing the full boxes. And, our finances are limited, just like our school district’s finances, so buying a bigger house is out of the question along with turning to the taxpayers and simply expecting disproportionately higher taxes to add hours to the school day and days to the school year. Increasing the school day would involve adding expenses (utility costs, labor costs…) at a time of economic distress. It won’t happen. So, if bigger containers are out of the picture, then we must focus on efficiency of storage as a potential answer to the dilemma.
Larry Lezotte, a noted educational researcher specializing in school improvement efforts, has promoted the concept of “organized abandonment.” That is, schools cannot continue to add more and more content unless they expand the school day – or eliminate some of what they had been teaching. Simply put, don't add anything to the school curriculum unless you get rid of something. Therefore, we return to the need to become more efficient in managing our curriculum and coursework.
The power of technology proves to be a great asset in such an endeavor. We are now capable of storing, retrieving and analyzing great quantities of data. Software applications allow us to integrate and manage incredible amounts of information.  Vast resources are available at our fingertips. 
Since knowledge and information grows exponentially at unimaginable rates of acceleration, we can no longer harbor it all within the reservoir of our own brains (at least I'll admit I can't). Instead we must consign it to electronic vaults for access when we need it. A simple and inexpensive thumb drive now has the potential to store countless pages of data – more than enough to satisfy our research needs. Computer technology, and related services, has democratized access to knowledge to a degree unknown since the first printing press.
The valuable commodity then becomes one of discovering and extracting information, discerning fact from fiction, discriminating among sources on the basis of authenticity and reliability, cross referencing and triangulating sources, applying objective interpretations, exercising higher-order thinking skills like evaluation and synthesis. Data is inert and static until we can use analytical skills to convert it into usable information that can make a difference in decisions and leverage knowledge.  There’s far more to it than I could hope to explain, but the essence involves the challenge of schools to confront the overwhelming amount of data and the inability for any individual to be an effective repository of an unimaginable knowledge base.
Finally, I will resurrect a concept mentioned in the November 5th Blog post entitled "Courage and Tolerance" – the difference between knowing “how” and knowing “that.” (Let's begin by differentiating between two ways of "knowing." For instance, "knowing that" generally refers to understanding facts and retaining information, a simple, almost formulaic transactional process commonly found in typical schools. And then there's "knowing how," which involves exercising a skill and demonstrating ability). Knowing “how” becomes every bit as important - maybe more so - as knowing “that.”
It's something to think about.

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