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Monday, December 6, 2010

On The Right Track

What direction are public schools going? What is the right track?

Let's talk about tracks for a moment. Train tracks, as in railroads. In the late 1800's railroads were dominant in the area of delivering large numbers of people and vast amounts of freight over long distances. Significant sums of money were concentrated in the hands of those who owned railroads (sometimes referred to as Robber Barons, like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould). These railroad fortunes have disappeared, to the point where federal dollars had to bail out the companies who survived the impact of other forms of transportation, only to face bankruptcy and an uncertain future.

How did that happen? There are quite a few different contributing factors but surely one of the primary causes was the inability of the owners of railroads to define themselves in terms of the business they were conducting. That is, railroads considered their primary function as transferring people and freight from one point to another. If they had instead defined their business in more general terms as transportation, then they could have foreseen the potential to diversify services and ward off the negative influence of cars, trucks, and planes on the railroad industry. Rather than investing in the new technology of automobiles, tractor trailers, and jets, they remained singularly focused on railways. Hence, their decline as a factor in transportation industry. They missed the signs of change and the reach of their business because they defined themselves in a narrow fashion.

What does this have to do with schools? The emphasis on tests, assessments, and data analysis has deflected resources (particularly during economic stress) and attention from other elements of learning that don't lend themselves to measuring process subsumed beneath the bureaucratic labyrinth of No Child Left Behind and the Race To The Top initiatives. For instance, beyond the skills and knowledge we strive to develop among learners, are the attributes that extend the application of those skills and that knowledge into the workplace. How far will someone get just on the skills and knowledge if they don't also exhibit a constructive work ethic, honesty, dependability, cooperation, persistence, integrity, and on and on..? Don't these characteristics count?

I am reminded that the U.S. Department of Labor once stated that the number one reason people lose their jobs (other than layoffs prompted by financial problems in the industry) is not due to their lack of skill, but rather their inability to get along with others. As more and more occupations involve team work and collaboration, the ability of people to cooperate becomes essential to productivity and performance.

The revered London School of Economics states that they are in the transformation business. They expect that everyone who engages in coursework in any level at the school to be transformed as a result of that experience. The school exceeds the limited perception that they are in the teaching and learning business. In what ways are public schools transforming learners if we are directed toward increased assessments of skills and knowledge in those disciplines that are easily measured? Thus far, we have state developed and mandated assessments in Math and English Language Arts in grades 3-8, with Science in grades 4 and 8, and Social Studies in grade 5. There are Regents exams in Math, Science, History and English in select grades. What about electives? Music? Art? Physical Education? Kindergarten, First and Second Grades? What about cooperation? What about...?

Schools should be encouraged and enabled to promote success in skill acquisition and general knowledge as well as the characteristics and attributes that are necessary to maximize the application of the skills and knowledge. Schools should transform people through experiences between Kindergarten and grade 12. Let's not be derailed from our meaning and purpose. Let's remain on the right track to success by providing opportunities for learners of all stages and at all ages to realize their potential - not just on state tests, but in the workplace too.

I worry that the increased focus on material that can be tested is beginning to resemble those old movies when the train engine has run out of coal to fire its furnace and the engineers have resorted to tearing up the rest of the train foraging for anything that will burn and produce the energy needed to keep the train running. They feed the fire by tossing in wood stripped from the very rail cars it tows. In this case, public schools may be tearing up curriculum, or at least diminishing the value of certain curricula, to feed the appetite of the mandated tests that transport education.

I believe the future of Heatly depends on our commitment to transform people by extending learning opportunities through increased electives and expanded programs.  To be competitive with graduates of other schools we must explore low cost high impact alternative learning experiences through evolving technology platforms, such as our recent addition of NovaNet, a credit recovery program capitalizing on computer assisted instruction to offer learners a chance to regain credit in classes and avoid falling behind or, worse, dropping out. Other possibilities involve distance learning and an online, virtual high school curriculum to supplement, not supplant, our traditional programming. Expanding opportunities while remaining small will put our graduates in position to compete for admission to the colleges of their choice and to compete in the workplace, with the support of characteristics such as cooperation, and others that are more easily developed within a small learning community where everyone knows everyone and everyone matters.

We can be a small school with BIG ideas. We're on track.

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