As I sit down to organize my thoughts about the best approach to fixing our public education system, I feel a bit like policy makers must have felt in pursuing a fix of US equity markets after the crash of 1929. Events have demonstrated with devastating clarity that the system is broke and no serious person with any knowledge of the situation denies that repair are in order, but the task is so daunting that it is hard to know where to begin.
So, lets begin toward the end: High School.
High School in America is a joke for most children. Academic standards are ridiculously low and distractions are ridiculously high. I think more than any other phase of childhood education, this is where the most radical change will be necessary. Or at least radical in the sense of changing our collective notion of what High School is all about.
The problem of where to begin thus pops up immediately because the first change I would make in High School is to reintroduce the 8th Grade diploma. Bear with me: I have to start somewhere. For the purpose of discussion, I’m assuming some fixing has gone on at early grade levels because a functional illiterate who holds an 8th Grade diploma is no better off than a functional illiterate holding a 12th Grade diploma. My idea in this regard is that by 8th grade graduation, surely it is reasonable to expect that a pupil will have adequately covered the three Rs.
Creating this bright line distinction and enforcing that the diploma actually means something would free the High School years for something more useful. Anyone who has been to High School in the last forty years understands that are kids who are going to college and those who are not-High School should reflect that reality. Kids who are college bound should get a real college-prep school where things like Calculus, Greek and written examination are the norm and not just reserved for those that track high based on the tests. Similarly, kids who choose vocational programs should get the real deal: actually learning how to be an electrician and how to get a job.
And before I go further, comment posts regarding how great their High School’s Advanced Placement programs were will be summarily deleted: I’m talking about the real world, not the privileged suburbanite wonderland that most of this Curmudgeon’s friends went to school in and send their kids to as adults. OK, not really. I still have an open posting policy, but I will ignore such dribble.
Here is the great news in my proposed scheme: because the 8th Grade education means that the basic skills have been acquired, switching between College Prep and Vocational programs is greatly simplified. Certainly remedial work would be necessary going either direction, but the artificial wall that says, “since you scored low on an exam in fourth grade, there is no way you are getting into Calculus” can be done away with forever. And as a bonus, the High School drop out would find themselves looking for work yet possessing skills that would actually make them useful to potential employers. I’ll bet we can get Wal-Mart to pay for some of this just because of the tremendous off-set they would get from not having to perform so much remedial education.
This transition would be tough, but worth it. And though I like these ideas, I think they still come up short in addressing some of the underlying social problems.
Which, of course, leads me to other radical ideas.
Eliminating sports from public education really shouldn’t seem all that radical. But it is clear that we must do this if we are to get serious. Lets face it, the transition period alone will be so difficult that the kids must be freed from distraction. There is nothing at all radical about suggesting that our kids focus on academics. Sports is the 800 pound gorilla that dominates on our public school campuses and it is time to cage the beast.
If you are distressed by this possibility, I would ask you examine closely why it is so bothersome to you. Then weigh that against the inadequate education of generations of kids and see how the scales do not balance.
It isn’t that I think Physical activity is unimportant for kids, because I certainly see the utility. And I definitely would not abandon Physical Education for younger kids as the serotonin regulation is itself invaluable to a good academic atmosphere. The problem is the culture we create around athletics in the older grades that is damaging to the athletes and to the students. And frankly, it just isn’t as important as an education.
Hey, if you kid is the next Tony Mandarich, send him to an after school program for the physically gifted. There simply is no more time to waste on half-measures and idealistic bull-feathers.
And if you think this simple plan is radical, just wait till you hear what I want to do to elementary schools.