The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Change the School; Change the World

on March 18, 2016

Today’s post was written by Don Bellairs, a regular reader and commentator of this blog.  I think he has some interesting and and practical ideas.  What do you think?

We aren’t doing a good job with our high schools.  We aren’t getting kids to come to school regularly. We aren’t getting all kids to graduate, and—when we do—many aren’t ready for college. We are trying to do too much and we need to dramatically cut down.

The act of improving education is an endless, Sisyphean task. We will always experience success and failure as we work to fulfill our constitutional obligation to provide free public education and to treat individuals as equals. But a crucial first step at this moment in our crisis is obvious: Think Occam’s razor. Think Thoreau’s “simplicity.”  Consider any of a thousand other examples in philosophy and common sense that admonish us to do less so that we may do better. American high schools today—different from one another in so many ways—share a common affliction: Like many of the pie-eyed, ambitious teens they serve, high schools try to do too many things at once. School employees—including teachers who have too much on their plates–choose to do first those things that are the most pressing. The unintended consequences are often neglect of the most needy students.

Relocating programs and activities that are not essential–not eliminating them—wouldn’t cost us a penny and would help us address the many problems we face in our public high schools. Certainly there are good arguments for continuing extracurricular programs that are ingrained in a school’s culture. But, if those programs are doing what they are supposed to be doing for high school kids, let’s make them part of the regular curriculum and available to all students. Technological advances and changes in our culture and in our understanding of learning processes now provide opportunities to modify a system of education that is not performing well, revealing opportunities not available until now. Our education systems would operate far more fairly and more efficiently—and more kids would complete our K-12 preparation programs with measurable skills— when schools do less and do it better.

We can gradually outsource the big-budget sports programs; Nike and Under Armour should pay for them anyway—they’re making all the money.  We would be amazed at how easily the Rotary Club can sponsor local sports teams, maintaining fields, hiring and supervising coaches—-they do it now for Little League.  Extracurriculars that serve a limited set of children should be incrementally reassigned to Parks and Recreation departments, churches, civic institutions, and private sector sponsors.

A school’s mission is further compromised by a flock of business people who descend on the upperclassmen with advertisements in many schools every September and don’t let up until June. I served as Activities Director at Oregon’s largest high school and was amazed by the marketing assault I experienced. We were charged ten grand to for them to decorate the cafeteria for a Friday night dance! Two grand for the DJ!  We had to charge $25 per person for attendance. That may not shock people but it should. Fortunately, I was able to change the process for our spring formal—we had in-house decorating done by the Drama Club and charged $10 admission. I came away with an awareness that, despite all the really good stuff we provide for high school kids,  too much of it wastes school money that could be better spent elsewhere.

What I suggest may be blasphemy to many in public education. Cutting football and band? No, not really cutting.  More like finding a new home. Granted, some of the best teachers I have worked with were coaches, drama teachers and band teachers. They were great teachers who did high-visibility work. Their ability to get children working together to achieve measurable goals is on public display so they have to be good. The problem for them: It is too easy to become exclusive when you are winning state championships…and those exclusive programs are what we should be trying to eliminate form public education.

For schools to enfranchise all students, we must learn to display the abilities of teachers who are able to get all kids to work well together, not just a select few. Concurrently, we must acknowledge that large the extra-curricular programs, regardless of how sacred and beloved, often serve an elite fraction of the school population. They operate outside mainstream supervision and often tend to outlive their usefulness after sucking up a lot of the school’s supply of oxygen…to the detriment of the greater good. School administrators I have known have spent too much energy on dance teams and ineligible football players. Youth football, big bands, even dance teams can and should exist, but we must find a way for them to operate outside the domain of the public school. Algebra teachers do not need to compete with jayvee coaches for kids’ attention or respect. They have a hard enough job already.

We can make choices when we design future schools. We can have a few students performing in expensive, state-of-the-art theaters or we can put a large number of kids on raised platforms in the front of every classroom and light them with clamp lights. When we  let both groups perform,  we will be nurturing exactly the same skills. We can re-enfranchise students by providing the same opportunities for everybody. Art classes, sports activities, drama and music do not have to go away—they can and should become integral parts of daily classes so that they serve all kids. Affluent parents who want their kids to participate on dance teams should enroll them in after-school programs instead. They should not expect other students watch the dance team perform at four consecutive assemblies. Those programs can be provided by other sources, without involving the taxpayers and public educators.

The system must evolve. We now know much more about the brain than in the past.  Our understanding of human development is far more profound. We have existing resources to change high schools to models of efficiency and equity without spending a lot of money. Ultimately, we can design functional, wide-open 24-hour sites for community schools that can be easily monitored and maintained. Then, professional journals that now discuss how to improve school statistics would instead be discussing how to make the experience more meaningful for all kids. As we redefine our high schools’ missions, we must glean what is most valuable from the many extracurricular activities that now exist and cast off what is elitist.

One response to “Change the School; Change the World

  1. Joan Kramer says:

    Hi Joanne – I am a bit fuzzy headed right now due to chemo. But this blog struct a nerve because I have been thinking about how comprehensive my high school was, and all the high schools in my city when we were adequately funded. I understand that times have changed, that we put way too much money into some things and no money into others. But certainly not offering comprehensive programs to all just somehow isn’t a satisfying solution. Students need to sample various activities. Of course, we also need to find programs that are updated to fit with the modern day skills needed. Auto shop isn’t what it was certainly – but we can offer the computerized version which is what is needed. Okay – we still need vocational schools in my opinion and to stop pushing that only college is the goal. Efficiency isn’t the goal.


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