My Mother will be 95 in September, and was born on a small farm in western Pennsylvania. She went to a one-room school for the first eight grades. Shaw School was a very small clapboard building with a big porch and a warm cast-iron stove, one teacher, and not much else. High School was the new building a couple of miles away – two story stone, probably eight classrooms, with a bookcase in the hall acting as the library. She really did walk to school, through the snow in the winters and uphill both ways to the high school, as there was a small rise between home and school. Some winter days when the snow was just right, Grandpa would hitch the gray mare to the sleigh and take her to school. We still have the sleigh bells that the horse wore.
After high school she went to Slippery Rock State Teacher’s College, now Slippery Rock University, and got her teaching certificate. But she couldn’t teach; she was only 17. The next year she got her first job teaching in another one-room school, where she had a student who was older than she was. He had not passed the eighth-grade test.
In those days in rural areas, students advanced at whatever pace they could. There were no strict class times, so a student could get more help on the subjects they had trouble with and spend less time on subjects they got easily. Older kids often helped with the younger kids. Move on to the next building when you were done, not according to some calendar.
Public education in the U.S. is much different today, has a lot more to offer and deals with a lot more children. But it is badly broken. The school district we currently live in is a modern, well-funded district with lots of dedicated teachers. It has 14 buildings: admin, 7 elementary schools, a fifth / sixth grade school, a seventh grade school, an eighth grade school, a ninth grade school, and a tenth through twelfth grade high school, plus a career and technology center. Students move from class to class by the clock, and from grade to grade, and often building to building, by their age. You are in the eighth grade in everything – minimal opportunity to catch up, and minimal opportunity to get ahead. But it sure is easier on the administration.
Many years ago I visited an auto plant near Detroit, Michigan. This was a very modern plant with parts automatically delivered to the assembly line just when and where needed. It was neat to watch the line of right front doors merge into the main line from the right, and the line of left front doors merge from the left, merging perfectly with the bodies moving down the line. Well, almost perfectly. Every once in a while, a blue door gets put on a red car, or there is not time to actually attach the steering wheel before the car moves past. Just throw it on the seat and slap a sticker to the windshield. No big deal. The line does not stop; quality control will deal with it at the end of the line.
In today’s public education, learn or not, keep the line moving. But there is no quality control that fixes the problems at the end of the line.
I am really concerned about our local district’s lock-step policy. These kids grow up with the same peer group. They do not even see younger kids to help or laugh at, and no older kids to mentor you, act as a role model either positively or negatively, or bully you. I’m not an advocate of bullying at all, but it will happen, either in the school or outside where there is no adult supervision. The way you learn to deal with the adversity you will see throughout life is to experience it in a relatively safe environment. Especially for the 11-16 year olds full of hormones and trying to become independent, I think the worst you can do is isolate them in tribes all in the same state.
When I was going to school, we looked down at the home school kids. They always seemed to belong to a radical family, either politics or religion, or lived in a lighthouse or other really out of the way place. And they had their parents as teachers, yuck, and few or no other kids to play with at recess. But I have noticed lately that those kids are often the best prepared for higher education, jobs, and life in general. Today there are many organizations that provide curriculum, often on-line and at no or minimal cost, testing, and the opportunity for social interaction. Many states fully support home school children, and many districts encourage home school children in their area to join their sports and music programs. It has many of the attributes of that one room schoolhouse, with lots more resources. A student can move at the pace he or she is able, can be at different levels in different subjects, and can branch out on virtual side trips to totally different study areas. The state standardized tests keep them up with the required stuff, but they often end up with a much broader and deeper understanding.
And I think that teaching your kids is one of the prime responsibilities of being a parent.
I am not advocating home schooling for everybody, or even a significant percentage of children. Most parents do not have the time to invest due to the responsibilities for work and other family commitments, and many parents frankly do not have the skills even with all the help that can be provided. What I do advocate is that public education takes a lesson from home schooling.
Let’s take a typical class, say some junior high history. The teach lectures out of a textbook during the class, and usually the students are not encouraged to interface very much. No talking! The teacher assigns homework. The expectation seems to be that the student will use the homework to delve deeper into things that interest him. The student has homework in five classes, and is concerned more with either getting it done quickly or not doing it at all. Usually the homework is something that is easy for the teacher to grade. After all, the teacher has 150 students’ homework to look at. Sometimes there is a penalty for not doing homework, but often the penalty is not much. The student had a probably boring class session where he was supposed to act like a sponge, followed by a fairly useless homework assignment. Very uninteresting, and not a good learning experience.
That’s because it is backwards. The student should spend the at-home time watching professionally created and delivered lectures over the Internet. These lectures can have enough feedback requirements so that the teacher can tell that the student actually did listen. Periodic tests can measure the progress of the student, and the system can deliver supplementary material to help get someone up to speed, or, if desired by the student, help the quicker student see additional material. Class time, where you bring the students physically together with a teacher, should be used for discussion, questions, and when the teacher brings the student into the conversation.
Last week I was talking with the director of business programs at a nearby college. He recently ran an undergraduate business course in exactly this way, and found that the students actually read the book, got more out of the course as measured by the tests, had higher class attendance, and great reviews from the students.
Why do most school districts still use printed textbooks? They are very expensive. They become quickly obsolete, but due to their cost they cannot be easily replaced. One semester we weighed our son’s backpack in high school – over 80 pounds. He turned out to be a U.S. Marine, but that kind of burden is not healthily for most children. eBooks are much less expensive and can therefore be easily replaced when appropriate. An entire school year’s books weigh less than two pounds on an iPad or other tablet device. The State of Delaware is starting down the eBook path, starting this fall in the high schools. eBooks cannot be lost, because they are stored in the Cloud, not in the backpack. Sure the tablet can be lost, stolen or damaged, but replacing one is about the price of two text books. Plus eBooks can be much more interactive than printed text books, allowing the student to explore additional areas as desired. As one example, Apple has released its free iBooks 2 textbook platform for the iPad, and publishers like McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Houghton Mufflin Harcourt are creating content using that platform. Collectively, they are responsible for 90% of the textbooks used in the U.S. today. Students can take notes electronically, essentially creating digital note cards. Again, the notes are stored in the Cloud so are not lost if the tablet is lost or damaged.
Perhaps the major hurdle to providing tablet devices to school children is not the cost of the device but the concern that the student might use the school-provided device to go to inappropriate places on the Internet. Perhaps the student will do that anyway? In my view, it is not the responsibility of the school system to monitor where children go, whether physically or virtually, but it is the responsibility of the parents.
Private schools and companies providing on-line learning content have learned this lesson. This technology is here today, driven by the Cloud. Public schools could embrace it now, but I fear without a lot of pressure from voters and parents, they will continue teaching as they have for the last decades, plodding along and hurting our children’s future.
The last word:
I just finished Allen Guelzo’s Fateful Lightning, a New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Dr. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. Like many of his books, this is easily read by the average American interested in our history, yet with all of the footnotes and references of a scholarly work. This is as much a book about the American economy, Northern and Southern society, international relations, civil rights (for slaves, freedmen, and women), conflict between the Presidency, congress and the courts, and political realities as it is about the actual war.
The Civil War was hugely expensive. Almost one of every five Confederate soldiers who marched off to war never returned; it was one of six for the Union. In pure dollars, it cost the nation $6.6 billion in 1860 dollars. In 1861, Lincoln proposed to buy every slave in Delaware at market price and provide 40 acres of land and a mule for every slave family. Had the offer been accepted by the entire South, that $6.6 billion would have done that for every slave in the U.S., and had $3.5 billion left over to promote black economic entrance into a market economy, something Lincoln knew needed to happen. One of real disasters of the war was that, due primarily to the assignation of President Lincoln, that last assistance step never happened.
There are important lessons that can be learned from this book about our world today, some of those lessons have been ignored in the past 20 years of our history and we will pay for that.
If you have a friend or relative who is interested in U.S. history or who would like an example of how to think across a wide range of disciplines when looking at a problem, this would be a great book. It is available in all of the usual places, but you might consider keeping your dollars close to home by getting it through you own local independent bookstore.
Keep your sense of humor.