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The changes we need in education ultimately must come from within

Monday, April 21, 2014 - 9:59 am

The 22nd or 31st or 120th attempt to reinvent the educational wheel in Indiana is apparently dead. Common Core will soon be placed on the huge trash heap of failed attempts to bring Indiana students up to the desired level of educational achievement.

When our family moved to Fort Wayne in 1984, the educational community was in a dither because of the middle-40s national ranking of Indiana in education. The proposed solution was threefold. The first step was to institute a 180-day school year with all snow days being made up, replacing the 175-day previous standard. The next step was moving the kindergarten starting date to June 1, the earliest date in the nation. Never mind that kindergarteners in the 1950s were often 4 years old until Dec. 31 and seemed to do just fine.

The results? An evaluation after several years showed that Indiana had hardly moved the needle. I read recently that we are now 42nd in the nation. If this is true, 30 years of calendar tinkering, curriculum tinkering and huge outlays of money have resulted in Indiana’s remaining in the 40s in national ranking.

Does anyone seriously believe that another “new” curriculum, more certification and accreditation procedures, more money and making up snow days will improve the situation? The answer from the educational community is apparently a resounding “yes” despite the fact that 30 years of failed attempts have consistently proved the very opposite. Even our Lutheran schools have joined the party by investing great amounts of time, money and resources trying to keep up with the Joneses despite lack of any data that suggested we were behind in any significant way.

Perhaps it is time someone faces facts. Elementary education should not be complicated. Have you ever wondered how teachers of the 1940s and 1950s, most of whom did not have master’s degrees and in some cases were even “two-year wonders,” produced students who eventually sent a man to the moon, led us into the technology age and have made America the envy of the world?

As far as I know there have always been three approaches to the teaching of reading: phonics, whole-word or a combination of the two. Outside of some advancement in science teaching, moving algebra instruction to eighth grade and technology, the elementary school curriculum is almost identical to that of 50 years ago. History, grammar, writing, basic math skills and reading have not changed appreciably except that reading has often been dropped as an actual subject in upper grades.

While we neglect the liberal arts teachers are most qualified to teach, we spend inordinate amounts of time on technology most students are fully capable of learning on their own, as any teacher who has had a student help him understand the complexities of his smart board can attest.

In the end there are three or four main qualities of good teachers. Teachers need to know their subject matter well and to have been good students themselves. Second, they need to be able to explain difficult concepts in a way that students can understand. Finally, they need to have a component that cannot be measured by merit pay guidelines. They need to love children and inspire a love for learning in them. In our Lutheran schools you can add the ability to teach the Christian faith by word and example.

What about students? This is where political correctness has kept us from dealing with some of the real problems of education. Why did the teachers of the 1940s and 1950s seem to produce such a quality product? Perhaps it was because they taught in the perfect storm of education.

Teachers taught a basic curriculum and knew what they wanted to accomplish without all the distractions of left brain/right brain, individualized approaches and endless record keeping teachers are burdened with today. There are many variables determining student achievement, such as teacher quality, facilities, desire and motivation, home environment, curriculum, expectation levels, family income and education level, among others.

No serious effort has been made by the educational community to isolate which variable is the main culprit. Instead they just seem to assume that it has to be teacher quality, curriculum or facilities. It would be very easy to find the culprit, since all teachers realize that a good experiment can have only one variable. To that end, conduct studies that isolate each variable.

To find out if it is a problem of teacher quality, for example, you could move all the teachers from a high-achieving district to a low-achieving one and vice versa. You would then watch for the huge achievement uptick for students in the low district and the corresponding drop for the high-achieving one.

Good students usually possess three qualities, too. First, students do have to have a certain level of ability. Not all students are capable of making straight A’s, as modern educators would have us believe. Second, students need to have a desire to work hard and learn, which has often been lost in our world of instant gratification.

Last of all, and the area educational experts are least willing to discuss, is the need for a positive and supportive home environment. Great facilities, high teacher pay, curricular advances and other externals cannot overcome impossible home situations. No one can change the innate ability level of a student, but teachers, not Common Core or other experiments, can influence the other two aspects.

Great teachers can inspire that desire to learn that might be dormant. They can inspire students to overcome difficult home situations that are holding them back. Until we are able to find a way to deal with those last two aspects of achievement, lack of desire and environment, things like Common Core will continue to fail miserably.

If the horse brought to the watering hole refuses to drink, neither good teachers, Common Core nor any other external force can make him. The changes we need have to come from within: within our society, within our families and within our students themselves.

Jim Smith is former principal of Zion and Bethlehem Lutheran schools.