The author of this guest article, Tim Hicks, has been an educator in Texas for more than 20 years. In all of those years, the thing that Tim has cared most deeply about, aside from his family, is teaching; the quality of teaching, the political direction of teaching and most importantly, the end result of teaching.
Like many of you, I have sat watching and listening aghast at the public education three-ring-cluster that has been going on for years. One group argues there’s not enough emphasis on basics. Another group screams about not a long enough school year. Arguments multiply like mirror imaged mushrooms; no accountability, parent accountability, teachers make too much, teachers make too little, teach religion, leave religion out of it, not enough testing, too much testing; the list of gripes and problems just continues to grow. Couple that with nationwide budget shortfalls and the situation only compounds to become one of those things we’d really rather not think about, let alone try to fix. No problem, just watch Snookie or American Idol or something else that drips out of the cable and forget it-it’ll go away or take care of itself…right?
Unlike many of you, I’ve taught in public and private schools for the last 24 years and would like to think that in that time I have seen some things that have worked and some that haven’t. And even with all I’ve seen, I still have hope for public education in this country. But it ain’t gonna be cheap, painless, quick or easy. Sit down in that desk and I’ll teach you what I think.
FOR ANYTHING TO REALLY CHANGE IN AMERICAN PUBLIC EDUCATION
THE ENTIRE SYSTEM NEEDS TO CHANGE!
I know that sounds like trying to rebuild a submarine that’s already underwater, but hear me out on this. I’m going to start small with my home state of Texas. (The home of small-minded educational fixes)
Some aspects of school life are going to have to give up some of their emphasis. We’ll start in my chosen field, Instrumental Music. There was a time when nearly everyone played some kind of musical instrument for their own enjoyment and perhaps to entertain others after coming in from the fields, home from the mill or back from the office. It would keep people from having to talk to each other in the hours between evening mealtime and going to bed in the Pre-Snookian Epoch. If you could play “Oh Susannah” or some other Stephen Foster blockbusters on the ocarina or the jaw harp, you could take your turn entertaining the folks at home, people could hum or sing along and everyone would be engaged in something together as a family or community. You didn’t have to seek out private instruction or drop a year’s salary on the instrument. There were books to help you learn it on your own and you could even play a hand-me-down horn. Most importantly, as a pastime (as thing done to pass time) it wasn’t about competition. Virtually none of what is referred to as music education in the Lone Star State is actually about education or music; it’s about rote training to march or sing or bow the competition into oblivion. Music choices are geared not to enjoyment or teaching, but to score with judges. Preparing 3 tunes for 3 months for 3 judges just doesn’t add up to music education.
How many times, would you guess, have automobiles been set ablaze and shop windows smashed over the great wars of Bach vs. Brahms? If you answered zero, you’re not the unthinking moron that the scholastic music industry thinks you are.
Now transfer some of that logic to inter-scholastic athletics. ( I’m talkin’ to you, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, swim team and both forms of hockey). The State of Texas stipulates that you can’t do any more than 8 hours of extracurricular a week (per activity). They made that rule because if they didn’t, football would be 30 hours a week just as quickly as you could blink your eyes. Band wouldn’t be far behind. In other states, basketball, swimming, track, baseball and soccer would be doing the same thing. What if we didn’t need to limit teams to 8 hours of “outside of school hours” practice because we’re all mature enough to realize that these are OUR KIDS involved in a PASTIME that’s supposed to be FUN??? Are you with me?
If your whole life is tied up in goin’ to STATE in whatever activity; if you are gonna base all of your happiness on something you did in high school; you’re going to have a long slow drop from age 18 until you expire. And let’s be real clear on this, the kids haven’t changed. They are still the same as they’ve always been. This is about parents, egos, school districts, coaches and band directors counting coup and validating budgets.
Let’s take some of the time and energy that we’re using elevating pastimes to full-times and use it more wisely. WHILE WE’RE AT IT, I’M GOING TO ASK THAT WE WITNESS ALL OF THE ENTHUSIASM USED BY THE COACHES-BAND-ORCHESTRA-CHOIR-DRAMA-DANCE-ETC TEACHERS AND INCORPORATE THAT SAME AMOUNT OF ENERGY AND ENTHUSIASM INTO ALL AREAS OF THE SCHOOL. There is a lot to be learned from the extracurricular courses and the people who teach them.
Hang onto that thought because you will be tested on it later!
While we’re on the subject of extra-curricular activities, I seem to remember a time when kids got more recess time, created more art in art classes, got along better with each other and didn’t shoot their classmates. What happened to all of that time? Where did it go? Apparently, we need that time to prepare for the standardized tests which aren’t about testing or teaching but about funding.
Did you like filling in the ovals when you were a kid? I did, mainly because it was something different that happened once a year, like Christmas or cleaning my room. We were told to concentrate and do well and there was probably an explanation included, but we didn’t wait around to hear that crap. We had our No. 2 pencils and we wanted, nay, yearned to race against time and finish those bad boys. (Side Note: YOU KNOW WHY THEY STILL CALL THEM No. 2 PENCILS? BECAUSE OF ALL THE SHIT THEY TEST OVER NOWADAYS!!!) There are diagnostic screenings, benchmark tests, practice tests, extra classes outside school time (did I hear 8 hour rule?) wailing, gnashing of teeth, remediation…ALL FOR WHAT IS BASICALLY A MINIMUM SKILLS TEST!!! And they keep adding to the list of things they are testing over-because if a synapse fires but an oval hasn’t been filled in the school board wonders if learning actually took place? We are wasting a ton of time that could be better spent doing just about anything else that really engages the students. Put the emphasis back on the process rather than the outcome. Just about everyone enjoys learning new things. We gotta hook into that and not kill that natural human curiosity by pumping it full of (No. 2) lead.
This is another important point that not everybody is prepared to face, especially when talking about their own kid(s). Maybe not everyone needs to be considered “college-bound” anymore. I don’t mean to exclude anyone who wants to further their education, but perhaps if a child prefers working with his/her hands rather than learning about gerunds, geometry or geodes, there should be an educational path provided to them that will lead to their fulfillment as an individual somewhere within the 4 high school years provided by the public system. When was the last time you interacted with a plumber or electrician who was younger than yourself? That’s because 20-odd years ago, someone got the idea that by this time, computers would be doing everything for us and everyone needed to be conversant in computerese.
The computers got easy to use in a big hurry and the kind of computer skills everyone thought we’d need were rendered useless by the programmers we already had. And while the age of George Jetson hasn’t arrived yet we still need people to fix faucets, hang doors, paint houses, fry hamburgers, groom poodles, change oil and run the rides at Six Flags-along with scads of other perfectly good jobs that need doing and people to do them. In previous generations, shop class taught kids how to actually do a thing, whether it was work with tools on metal or wood or understand and work on car engines. Do you know how to fix an internal combustion engine? How about an air conditioner or and electric car? If we stop teaching this stuff forever, there’s a bad science fiction episode in our future where important and mostly low tech things start to break down and we have to decide which of the slower kids we have to eat and which ones we can sell for working motors.
THERE IS NO DISHONOR IN WORK OF ANY KIND. Judging people for their income and number of toys has pretty well created the mess that we’re in now. All we have are toys and status and damned little in the way of useful skills. Let that one settle in your brain for a minute. Everyone’s ego has needs, but enough is literally enough. Besides, the average illegal alien knows how to turn your garbage into a working motorcycle, a weed whacker and a thing that slow cooks goats with a half a bag of charcoal. And it’s not going to be too terribly long before your kids are working for his.
Let’s take a minute and review what we’ve learned so far. Pastimes are fun, but in most cases they are merely diversions that can be used to break up the workday, both for kids and adults. We can put more energy and enthusiasm into teaching academic subjects by focusing on concepts instead of outcomes. Standardized tests should test the actual understanding of subjects covered rather than the ability to take standardized tests. Also, like Groundhog Day, they should only come once a year and not need an entire year of preparation. And finally, a person can live a full, complete and happy life without going to college.
We’re off to a good start for now. Class dismissed. Next order of business-Economics.