As has been observed before, public schools remain tied to the nation’s 19th century agrarian past. There have been surprisingly few changes to its essential structure, despite profound changes in the rest of society.
Maine’s Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen believes it’s time to rethink public education or risk it becoming irrelevant. The commissioner seems poised to bring substantive, structural changes to public schools. And for now, he has the political support to achieve those changes.
But problems come when people with political or ideological agendas use the need for transforming public schools to tear down or make changes that serve narrow goals.
School choice, a system that would let parents use government-issued vouchers to pay for children to attend the school the parents select, is one radical change that should be rejected. Parents who have the financial means to transport their children to the better schools may do so, but those without the means will not, leaving those poorly performing schools in even worse shape. Such an outcome recalls the “separate but equal is inherently unequal” court ruling.
The push to bring values-based curricula to public schools also should be avoided because it is dangerously close to religious education. Weakening the role teachers play in developing curricula and methods by assailing their collective bargaining rights also must not be one of the fixes.
But there is much that can be done.
Today, public schools are expected to prepare some students for graduate level education at prestigious universities, prepare others for two-year college or skill-specific jobs and still others for general employment after high school. Differentiating high school so it can provide the appropriate pathways to these varied goals would go a long way toward improving effectiveness.
The classroom itself can be reinvented and reconfigured. Some schools have adopted the 80-minute block, but much more innovation is possible, such as year-round school. Technology offers the opportunity to extend learning to different parts of the building, home and elsewhere.
And speaking of home, 21st century education must adapt to the new reality of parents. Children are almost as likely to have their mothers and fathers living in separate houses as living together. And parents, whether together or not, are working and not often able to ensure children are completing homework assignments. This reality shifts more of the burden onto teachers.
So the new paradigm should both empower parents to be involved in the direction and quality of their children’s education and at the same time make them responsible for their children’s successes and failures.
And underlying it all, schools must demand accountability. A high school student must demonstrate his or her proficiencies before getting a diploma. Teachers also must be rigorously evaluated and helped to become more effective.
Mr. Bowen would do well to focus on a short list of important changes. Given the amount of money the state spends on education, this must be a top priority.