Pushed to pick

August 18, 2008

When Fort Wayne Community Schools unveiled its $500 million building program, a lot of people said, “But what about academics?” Now we have the answer. FWCS has plans to reinvent its six high schools. I’m working on an editorial about it, and I don’t know exactly the final shape will be, but it will not be nearly as uncritically supportive as The Journal Gazette’s:

Parents should also be prepared to accept changes that will create schools unlike those they attended. That model doesn’t work in today’s global economy.

[. . .]

The districtwide approach FWCS is taking distinguishes the redesign from reform efforts around the country. It also makes it harder to grasp exactly what the high schools will look like next fall or in five or 10 years. That’s OK – Philo Farnsworth didn’t know what television would look like when he pioneered its technology here in middle of the last century.

The editorial barely mentions, in a sentence and in a sidebar, the major thrust of this reform — turning the high schools into magnets the way other schools already are. And that’s what I have a problem with. How many high school students really know what they want to do in their adult lives?  What is the danger that this will push many of them into choosing something they’re not suited for or not really that interested in? I was out of high school, had a year and a half of college, went off to the Army for three years, and I finally decided what I wanted to do when I went back to college after that.

And I’ve seen so many new education fads come and go, from the minor disaster known as New Math to the major abomination they called Outcome Based Education, all premised on the earnest belief that the way education has worked for thousands of years is no longer valid, that we are so different today that we have to keep reinventing the classroom.

I’m stuck with the belief — calle me retrograde — that the more the world changes, the more we have to get back to the basics. If knowlege keeps doubling at a faster rate, trying to keep up with it in school is pointless; students will always be learning things that will soon be out of date. There is more need than ever to ground them in reading and writing and arithmetic and give them the skills to keep learning and coping with change. People no longer will have one career, we are told — they will likey have three or four in their working lives. What’s the point of steering them down one path while they’re still in high school?

At least FWCS seems intent on making this a collaborative effort, with lots of conversations with parents, educators and taxpayers. Since the primary function of education should still be to understand and pass along the common culture — NOT just turn out interchangeable economic units that can be fit into the workforce — that’s at least the right way to go about it.

(Scott Bryson at American Societal Review has a similarly skeptical take on the FWCS plans: “First of all, to help student prepare for a global economy should be the province of colleges and trade schools, not high school. High schools should prepare students to enter and succeed in college.” The whole thing is recommended reading.)

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2 Responses to “Pushed to pick”

  1. Bob G. Says:

    Leo:
    Don’t be at all surprised to see the “block” scheduling go bye-bye, either.
    I knew that was failed from the start, and I told my wife as much (she’s a teacher, btw).
    I think with ONLY SIX high schools in the area, there isn’t a “need” for EVERY SINGLE school to be a “specific” school. ONE school might suffice quite well, in fact, with the other FIVE pursuing a hardline “core subject” structure.

    And you are SO right that with all the changes to our world over the past 40 years, we NEED to get back to BASICS…spot on with that assessment, Leo!

    When you and I went to school, we had 2 choices after high school:
    1- work
    2-college
    (well three if you count the military draft, which we weren’t ASKED if we wanted to choose anyway…lol)
    And all the high school did THEN was prepare you for the aforementioned TWO choices.
    (and nothing prepares you for war, that’s a given)

    With today’s lack of manufacturing (and the advent of computer-assisted manufacturing) the mindset should be preparation for college or the 21st century workforce (which will certainly involve technical expertise).

    Much food for though on this premise, though.

    B.G.

  2. Harl Delos Says:

    When you and I went to school, we had 2 choices after high school:
    1- work
    2-college
    (well three if you count the military draft, which we weren’t ASKED if we wanted to choose anyway…lol)
    And all the high school did THEN was prepare you for the aforementioned TWO choices.

    Gee, when I went to high school, there were a lot of options.

    In addition to a college prep program, they had athletic programs, music programs and theatrics for those who intended to become celebrities, courses in bookkeeping and typing for office jobs, and courses in industrial arts for factory jobs, but they also had courses in vocational agricultural and in home economics for those who didn’t intend to get jobs.

    And then they had classes in health, for those who intended to keep themselves and their families healthy, and courses in history, geography, social studies, and civics, for those who intended to be good citizens.

    With today’s lack of manufacturing

    Indiana still has a higher percentage of the population engaged in manufacturing than any other state. Perhaps that’s the problem.

    As long as Indiana residents think you’re supposed to turn off your brain when you finish high school and spend your life as a wage-slave in a factory, it’s no big deal that Indiana SAT scores have historically ranked in the bottom one-third of all states.

    But with the rise of the “virtual corporation”, a hollow structure that subcontracts 90% of their work to mom-and-pop garage operations, there aren’t very many jobs in the big factories, and the mom-and-pop garage operations need people who are versatile and intelligent, not only capable of programming production equipment, but of developing products and processes that offer a competitive advantage. In other words, an intelligent and educated workforce.

    College doesn’t turn you into an inventor. It doesn’t teach you how to innovate and compete. It’s an assembly line that turns out educators capable of running an assembly line, and drones that work in the offices of those megacorporations that are no longer competitive.

    We need to separate the function of education from the function of certifying credentials. That not only will allow students to get their education ala carte instead of buying everything from one school, then they take a test that shows they know biology or chemistry or economics or whatever. That would result in colleges becoming much more entrepreneural – and once they start doing it, they can start teaching it.


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