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How to fix our schools? First, ask the right question.

A friend forwarded two articles about the state of education in California and all the political wrangling: How do we best improve our schools? How do we get more federal money? What is the effect of teacher’s unions on reforms? What is the effect of charter schools on kids and on neighborhood schools?

I realized that some of my strongly held opinions make me just step away from arguments like this and say, “They’re arguing about the wrong thing.” In both arguments, test scores formed the basis for “proving” that one approach was better than another. But depending on how you read the data, you can use test scores to prove pretty much anything!

Here’s the problem with test scores: It has been proven that one way to predict a school’s test scores with alarming accuracy is to look at the zip codes of the parents. It’s also been proven that a way to predict a particular student’s test scores is to look at what scores the parents would get. Schools have so little effect on test scores that when all these politicians argue about them, their arguments are invalid right from the beginning!

You can look at my own family as an example: two PhD parents. Our high school grades were all over the map – from an excellent student to a poor student. Test scores for all of us? Right at the top. Doesn’t matter how well we did in school, because that’s not what standardized tests are testing.

So then come all the arguments about charters. Their scores are lower, thus they aren’t succeeding. Their scores are higher, thus they are leeching the best students from the public schools. See? The scores can be used to mean anything that people want them to mean, and thus they are meaningless!

Here’s how I think we should “fix” our schools:

First, I believe that for one chunk of students, CA public schools are too academic. These students should be given an education appropriate to what they’re planning to do in life. They don’t need to be forced to take all sorts of academic classes that eventually convince them to drop out of school. They need well-equipped shop classes, classes in money management and health, classes in bookkeeping and law clerking, and other sorts of practical classes that will engage them in becoming productive. No wonder they drop out: school has nothing to do with their lives.

On the other hand, the old method of “tracking” students based on their class and race was stupid: students should choose tracks based on their interests and their plans. They should be able to jump tracks anytime they want, just in case they wake up one day and realize that what they really want to do is be an English professor or a rocket scientist. And community colleges should be there, well-funded, to help everyone if the path they chose in high school doesn’t end up working for them or if the jobs in their field dry up.

For students who want to go on to higher education, programs should exist to support their needs also. In that case, high schools should focus the more academic classes on kids who are trying to get into a university and who will need higher level math, higher level research skills, and advanced sciences.

The second major change that I think needs to happen is in the structure of schools. The idea that a school draws kids based on their location rather than based on their interests and needs is outdated. Schools should be based on an area of expertise, and students should be allowed to attend full-time or just by the class. A kid who homeschools should be able to take a math class at the high school, regardless of his age or “grade.” The school should get funding for the classes it offers, and if a class isn’t well attended, it gets cut just like at a college.

As a result of this, everything would need to become more community-based. I’ve heard a persuasive argument that kids’ sports should be taken out of schools and turned over to communities — I think this would become necessary. Kids would join leagues just as they do in sports that are not traditionally supported by high schools. Schools would start to need to serve kids’ needs rather than administrators’ needs.

I’m not totally anti-testing: I think all kids should be tested a couple of times during their education to make sure that problems are caught early and that we are providing all our kids with the tools they really need in modern life. But once schools become more fluid environments, having something like the California high school exit exam would be meaningless. More kids would be able to graduate from high school with meaningful degrees, and they wouldn’t have that dreaded feeling that their lives are set in stone by the age of 18. That reality is one that died in the last century.

All the arguments about improving our schools are meaningless to me until the idea of school gets into the 21st century. Few people think that the old model ever worked, if they really look at it. It’s just what they’re used to, and change scares people. Just look at the health care debate: Before it became a possible reality that change was going to happen, everyone agreed that our health care system was broken. As soon as a bill was being put together, all of a sudden people hugged onto their awful, overpriced, overbureaucratic health plan like it was their beloved baby!

Incremental change is happening in education in places like Santa Cruz County, but we need to identify the right questions before we can create a system that works with our modern culture.

Posted in Culture, Education, Homeschooling.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. ask the right question linked to this post on April 6, 2010

    […] she was asking the wrong question. If you really want the answer, ask the right question. …How to fix our schools? First, ask the right question …First, ask the right question. A friend forwarded two articles about the state of … County, but we […]

  2. Superman running in a race to nowhere – Avant Parenting linked to this post on November 18, 2010

    […] for every child, and we need to open up the possibilities for all children. I actually wrote about my vision for community schooling a few months ago, so I won’t go into details […]

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