*Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel. Published here by permission of the author.
By Marion Brady
May 7, 2005
"Everybody wants the schools to be better; but almost nobody wants them to be different." ~ Joe Graba
Cheap! Maybe that's the key that'll open the door to educational change!
The appeal of lower taxes almost always trumps the appeal of higher-quality education, so the trick is to figure out how to educate better with less money -- a whole lot less money -- so much less money that state legislators won't be able to resist removing enough bureaucratic barriers to allow experimentation. High-school reform is on the front burner right now, so let me suggest some ways to save money at that level. Those who think quality lies in doing better what we're already doing will be appalled by the suggestions, but I agree with Joe Graba, former Minnesota deputy commissioner of education: "We can't get the schools we need by improving the schools we have."
So, starting with a clean slate, and thinking cheap, here are a dozen proposals:
No. 1: Take the phrase "neighborhood school" seriously and design around it. Choose local adult-student steering committees to locate, rent or lease centrally located community centers, churches, houses or other facilities.
No. 2: Set maximum school size at 30 to 40 students for morning classes, another 30 to 40 for afternoon or evening classes.
No. 3: Hire a three- or four-person teacher team, based on interviews and the team's written program proposal.
No. 4: Right up front, spend whatever is necessary to test and fix sight and hearing problems. It's a waste of money to try to educate kids who're functioning at less than peak potential because they don't hear or see well.
No. 5: Find out who each kid really is. It mystifies me how, with straight faces, we can simultaneously sing the praises of "American individualism" while forcing all kids through the same narrow program. For a fraction of the cost of present standardized subject-matter tests, every kid's distinctive strengths and weaknesses can be explored using inexpensive, proven inventories of interests, abilities, personalities and learning styles.
No. 6: Eliminate grade levels. Start with where kids are, help them go as far as they're able, and give them a diploma describing what they've done and can do.
No. 7: Eliminate textbooks. They're relics of a bygone era, cost a lot of money, the day they're printed they're out of date, and they're the main support of simplistic ideas about what it means to teach and learn.
No. 8: Stop chopping knowledge up into "subjects." Knowledge is seamless, and the brain processes it most efficiently when it's integrated.
No. 9: Push responsibility for teaching specific skills and knowledge on to users of those skills and knowledge -- employers. Specialized, occupation-related instruction such as that now being offered in magnet schools will never be able to keep up with either the variety or the rate of change. Employers will resist, so sweeten the pot with subsidies as necessary. (A bonus: Apprenticeship and intern arrangements will go a long way toward smoothing the transition into responsible adulthood.)
No. 10: Eliminate school buses, food services, athletic departments, athletic fields, cops on campus, non-teaching administrators, attendance officers, extracurricular activities. (And add into the tax savings much of the $50,000-plus it costs each year to keep poorly educated kids locked up in prisons.)
No. 11: Strip away all the non-academic roles and responsibilities state legislators piled on schools during the 20th century. Create independent municipal support systems for neighborhood-level, multi-age programs for art, dance, drama, sports and anything else "extracurricular" for which a local need or interest is apparent.
No. 12: Drastically shrink central administrations. Have them coordinate the forming of teacher teams, and relieve those teams of paper shuffling, resource acquisition and other non-instructional tasks.
School doesn't need to take all day every day. Suggestions 5 through 9 will make it possible to accomplish more in three hours than is now being accomplished in six. The special-interest, personal-learning project, which every student should always have under way can be done on her and his own time.
Not incidentally, I'm concerned with matters in addition to functional schools -- the creation of a sense of neighborhood and community, the expansion of community-service activities, and vastly increased contact between generations. Cutting out all the non-academic responsibilities will open up time for all kinds of fascinating, new, growth-producing activity.
Don't like my proposal? Dream up your own. But keep another Joe Graba insight in mind: "Everybody wants the schools to be better; but almost nobody wants them to be different."
What do you think? Have a dream of your own?
Earlier Post on Marion Brady's Views