Saturday, June 26, 2010

Crisis equals opportunity: raise the standards for high school graduation.

Hi everyone,

Given the crisis in educational funding, and a funding formula in Wisconsin that is crushing the state's smaller and poorer districts underfoot (like flowers crushed beneath the wheel of history, to paraphrase Hegel), it'd be easy to chicken out on our responsibility to today's high school kids and fix the budget by cutting curriculum.

That is an intolerably irresponsible idea. In fact, we need to stiffen our resolve and strengthen the mandatory curriculum even in the face of budgetary crisis.

Here's the original version of Saturday's column, a facsimile of which appeared in Saturday's Daily News.

It’s time to excel in education
Treading water won’t move us forward in competitive climate

Crisis equals opportunity: like schools everywhere, the West Bend school district is facing a catastrophic funding crisis. There is nothing the district board can do about the state funding formula and, even though West Bend East and West received national attention last week [in Newsweek's 2010 High School ranking], this is no time to rest on laurels. Even now, in the midst of fiscal difficulty, we need to press forward and take this opportunity to raise the educational bar even higher.

Not everyone agrees with me. In fact, In my very first column for this paper I encouraged the school district to raise the bar: specifically, to produce lots of students who can do calculus and speak a foreign language -- I suggested Chinese, but Spanish or Arabic might be good options nowadays. Our own Senator Grothman promptly responded with a letter to the editor in which he claimed my suggestions made me an amoral materialist bent on implementing China's one child policy (which was lawyer speak for "atheistic baby killer"). It was an odd over reaction to a call for raised educational standards. More commonly, and less caustically, we're hearing the snake oil of "cuts cure everything" in education along with the marketing pitch that we need to adopt more of a 'business model' for educating the next generation.

This strikes me as disingenuous. The business model consistently cuts educational opportunities instead of expanding them. Business model proponents typically begin by cutting "waste." Good idea, but you have to tread lightly: in education, cutting programs to balance budgets attempts to "fix" schools by making the students dumber.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, our high school graduates will find themselves neck deep in brutal, international, economic competition. Manufacturing jobs have been exported and outsourced overseas, a lot of them forever. That means this generation of young Americans will have to compete in a knowledge based economy. Tougher still, our high school grads are no longer in competition with people from Illinois or California -- they have to compete against the world. Worst of all, America as a whole is falling behind the rest of the planet in education. It isn't pretty.

The OECD's most recent Program for International Student Assessment found that within the OECD, only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and Mexico have lower high school completion rates than we do. Finland is kicking our butt in math and Korea, in the space of a single generation, went from Third World backwater, to number three in college educated adults. China and India are coming for us.

So how can we adjust our education system to meet these challenges?

We work harder, and we can start here at home.

West Bend students are required to take only 22 credits worth of classes to get a diploma; the state of Wisconsin requires only 12. What this means, essentially, is that if you squeeze out the electives, the discretionary courses, from the curriculum -- a step the district may soon have to take -- a student could graduate from high school at the end of sophomore year. Wanna take bets on how well that 16 year old will do compared to his or her counterparts in Bangalore and Shanghai?

Right now students are required to take 4 years of English, but only 3 years of social studies, and 2 years each of math and science. This is nuts. Even more scandalous, students need only half a credit -- a single one semester course -- in Applied/Fine Arts, which includes: Business and Marketing Education, Family and Consumer Science, Technology and Engineering Education, or Music or Art. There are endless studies indicating that music and art contribute to the development of cognition, to both creative and critical thinking skills. And if students had been taking enough Consumer Science over the past 20 years, would Americans have spent themselves into the bottomless pit of debt?

I'm Old School pedagogically, so I hope my friends in K-12 education will forgive me -- I've always been a fan of Mortimer Adler's Paideia Proposal to create a well educated citizen. He advocates a set of broad and deep standards based in the classic tradition of a liberal arts education. Here's what West Bend could do: for starters, the district could require high school students to take 4 years of English, 4 years of mathematics, 4 years of science, and 4 years of social science including at least a couple of years of a foreign language -- enough so they can order off a menu in someplace that isn't the US. In short, require 4 full years instead of only 2. Toss in art history, music, and manual competence in carpentry, cooking, or car repair and you'd produce students able to keep ahead of their counterparts around the world and nimble enough to adapt themselves to jobs that haven't even been created yet.

We want a generation of students who will be smarter than we are, both book smart and street smart. None of this is rocket science, but real rocket science depends on it -- as does our future.



Grant said...

My daughter was just kneecapped by the beancounters here in Fort Atkinson. She spent two years busting ass to maintain a perfect GPA in honors-level science, history and math. Last week she was rewarded with the news that six out of the seven classes she wanted for her junior year have been axed, including AP biology, environmental science, British literature and French.

So next fall my pride and joy will be preparing on her own for the AP exams in hopes of getting out of what is rapidly becoming just another hick state. And "Galt" Grothman and the rest of the wave of demented avengers will stay behind, cheerfully marching into blissful ignorance. God bless 'em.

DanBack said...

I really don't like the evil government telling me that MY children have to go to school at all. Sounds like a pretty commie idea to me.

Rich said...

Grant, before you go after the "bean counters" and "demented avengers" I suggest you look at Youth Options - the state unfunded mandate that allows students to go to a college to get credit for classes the school does not offer on the school district's dime. While I personally have a problem with the program (some of the classes kids take are off the beaten path), it may provide a solution to your daughter's issue.

zulfiya77 said...

Solid article.

Your scary picture of the East trumping the West in supporting education and creating strong youth with college/ job skills creates considerable, justifiable anxiety. For profit schools, lessening education programs and cutting educational budgets is the exact opposite of what Korea, China and other countries are doing, countries that are doing well despite the global recession. Maybe if we put education under the country's defense budget, rabid critics of education would dissipate; being an educator, becoming educated, and supporting education might be considered patriotic, good, and right versus being portrayed by some critics as extravagant, liberal, socialist, anti-American, and anti-business.

Then again, all those educated would be a "equalizing" threat to the stability of the top tier of U.S. citizens who do not like their control of the country's steering wheel questioned.

I am also flabbergasted when people say we need more creative thinking in the workplace; then they criticize the schools, arguing art and music is an extravagant, wasteful expense.

Mpeterson said...

Some of the best students I've had have been those Youth Options students, and I'd challenge you to explain what "off the beaten path could mean"... unless of course you mean Philosophy ;^) -- but then you'd also have to explain why you don't think it's worth the trouble for such students to learn how to read really difficult texts and analyze the content.

But to begin using Youth Options in this way would simply hide the costs of getting that young person the education they need. You'd know this better than me Rich: wouldn't it be cheaper to pay for a teacher to teach these courses than pay tuition into the UW system?

Rich said...


Yes it would, if there are more than a couple of students taking the class. What was meant to be a help to outlying, smaller, rural districts to allow students to take calculus or other higher end classes, has ballooned into "Animal Behavioral Science" and other classes that should be collegiate classes. It has turned into a way for families to get even more of subsidized college educations.

As you know Mark, paying for every class that could possibly interest any student is not sustainable for public education. On the other hand, I would say that French and AP biology would be 2 candidates for classes I would agree should be part of Youth Options. They are more general in nature and are not necessarily related to a major for a student that could change.

zulfiya77 said...

Can education be put under the National Defense budget?

Distance Relative said...

"Can education be put under the National Defense budget?"

why do you think we keep hearing from critics of the critics of the school system that we should be more like China. Because they are role-models for a good society.
or because we are afraid of them (getting ahead or whatever)-either way it doesn't sound right.

besides, they even admit to mistakes in their own school-system.
that is why they need "re-education camps.