A few days ago, I found myself reading a recent memo from Vermont School Commissioner Armando Vilaseca. Its content was alarming.
The memo starts out with an upbeat tone, informing the reader of the Department's new mandates and goals (called "Transformation Goals") which position "the department to increase support for schools in ultimately improving outcomes for all Vermont learners. The structure we have defined is intentionally focused on mobilizing all of our staff to support schools in improving instruction and learning outcomes for all students."
Okay so far.
But then the memo gets to the real issues facing the education establishment: massive budget cutbacks, lay-offs and retirements resulting in a 20% workforce reduction, and--here's the kicker--yet another reorganization of staff around "new learning goals."
Gone are content specialists in social studies, foreign languages, art and music, gifted and talented programs, and physical education. Those people not let go who held positions in those areas have been reassigned to something called an "Integrated Support for Learning" team. The remaining content specialists in the fields of special education, math, English language arts, English Language Learners and science will stay put as they are "part of the statewide assessment system."
This sounds to me like we are paying more and more attention to "teaching to the test" than ever. Are we surprised, therefore, that student learning is at risk? Are we surprised that more and more parents continue to question the value and efficiency of our once-vaunted school system?
None of this is the fault of one person--especially not of Commissioner Vilaseca. He's been given an impossible job to do ("Fix Our Schools") and he's doing the best he can. But this memo reminds me of my favorite Einstein quote: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Surely, by now, we are all insane. How many more times are we going to refine, reduce, reassign, re-strategize, re-formulate, re-eliminate, re-focus, and re-incentivize (using made-up words is fun because nobody can refudiate them irregardless of how they are misinterpretated) our education system before we finally come to the inescapable conclusion that this is NOT the way to "improve outcomes for all Vermont learners?"
Surely, if this method worked at all, it would have worked by now...?! (And I'll stop calling you Shirley if you agree with me :)
So what CAN be done?
Let's start with this question: What do we want our children to learn and why?
This is an important question for policy-makers to return to often, because the answer changes over time. For me, at this moment in history, there are global issues to consider all of which impact the outcome of student learning (not to mention the human condition) in profound ways. Global Warming, Renewable Energy, Religion, Population, Food and Water Management are five that immediately come to my mind. But I'm not suggesting that we run out and create curricula around these issues for first-graders.
What we must do is develop curricula that will serve as a foundation for first-graders to lean on when, as young adults, they begin to focus on solving these thorny and sophisticated problems. For example, wouldn't it make sense to start teaching a second language to preschoolers and NOT wait until they are in the 7th grade (as is the current practice in the Montpelier school system)?
Everyone who has ever had a child (or read the research literature) knows that it is during these formative years that our "language centers" are at their most receptive. Regardless of what captures the imagination of a young learner enough to cause him/her to dedicate a career to it as an adult, being able to converse with colleagues from Spain, Egypt, China and Russia who are working on the same issue(s) will certainly be advantageous.
Science and math are important, no doubt. So here's another idea: why don't we go crazy and hire some Hispanic, Arabic, Chinese, or Russian teachers to teach those subjects in their native language once our kids have enough basic linguistic knowledge under their belts? I say kill two birds with one stone: learn the language AND learn geometry! I know it can be done because I know people from Spain, Egypt, China, and Russia, and every one of them learned geometry, and lots more besides.
So right now, what do I think the goal of education should be? Simple. To help every child discover for him or herself the joy of lifelong learning.
What feeds this desire?
The ability to speak more than one language
The ability to carry on a discussion about religion with a person from another faith without resorting to epithets or physical violence.
The ability to do sums in more than one currency.
The ability to weep at the end of Madama Butterfly.
The ability to weep tears of outrage about the lost boys of Sudan.
The ability to dance with a parent more often than at your own wedding.
The ability to return to William Faulkner novels again and again...and again.
The ability to read aloud to your child.
The ability to cheer your child's role as a triceratops in his class play about dinosaurs.
The ability to explain why you're supposed to stand when the National Anthem is played.
The ability to explain why you're supposed to stand when Handel's Hallelujah Chorus is played.
Our world is very small. Understanding how to navigate its complexity starts with language and culture. We need to teach a basic appreciation for all culture, starting with our own. This includes not just social studies, but the arts, music, poetry, dance, and drama that constitute our collective human expression. From this common understanding we can nurture our expertise in the sciences, in mathematics, in the constant quest for human knowledge. This is how to instill in our young learners a hunger for learning. This is what we must demand of our schools, of our teachers, and of ourselves.
To do otherwise is insanity.