Problems in schools, and their fixes

March 04, 2007|By ROBERT GARY

Problem 1. Curriculum: There's just too much of it. About 90 percent needs to go in the trash can, and be replaced by thinking-skills training. There are a few facts that students in high school really need to know. What they really need is: 1) The ability to read with comprehension, 2) to write with clarity, 3) to speak with persuasiveness and 4) to use two key quantitative skills: measurement and estimation (including elementary statistics and linear algebra).

Students need a few facts. They need the parts of the U.S. government and how they work. In the ninth grade, a broad outline will do - and by the 12th grade, reading selected pieces of legislation, regulation, and judicial opinions. American civics must be fact-oriented. Avoid putting in the political opinions of the teacher (very unfair with a captive audience) and avoid over-use of the daily news as reported in the media. Stick with the academic core facts - let students do their news reading/listening on their own time.


The other facts that students in high schools need are mostly about their own bodies. How they work, what nourishes them, what poisons them, how they procreate and give rise to offspring. A bit of internal medicine, some chemistry, some physiology of human reproductive systems - it doesn't have to be "sex education" per se, but it would be dreadfully unfair to create social and economic penalties for unplanned pregnancies with no information given to students by the public schools so that they all are verifiably aware of how pregnancies occur.

Similarly, it would be unfair to send high schoolers into the workplace containing occupational hazards and toxic materials without giving them some information about what materials in common industrial and home use are potentially toxic. It's also wrong to stigmatize children (or anybody) for being fat if the society has no methodical policy to teach people the facts about nutrition. Actions have consequences. If we want a healthy society, people have to know what consequences flow from what actions. The other 90 percent of student time should be spent on the four skills that liberate a thinking human being: reading, writing, speaking and basic figuring.

Problem 2, homework: Besides curriculum, another thing that needs to be drastically reduced is homework. Any time work done for academic credit is done outside the classroom, there is no reliable way to know who did the work, or where the submitted materials come from.

Work done for academic credit should be done in class. This means silent classrooms for reading comprehension, writing and figuring. All the performance is being done by the students at their own desks or study carrels. For speaking, which includes the art of listening, there would be presentations in the classroom by the students. When teachers really do their jobs, the student work for academic credit is done right there in the classroom a few feet in front of the teacher's face. No homework. It's not a sensible use of student energy or teacher time.

Problem 3, teachers: What's needed instead is more along the lines of a classroom director. This person would mainly direct the students in their use of self-teaching materials, and in their earnest and decorous demonstrations of speaking and listening skills. The learning environment would be fairly quiet, except for speaking/listening classes, which would be not so quiet.

The learning process should focus on a set amount of student progress per day. Once a student makes that amount of progress, their day's schoolwork is done. It could be done in an hour or two by some, in two or three hours by most and in no more than 4 hours by even the least rapidly progressing learners.

Slower students work longer at their learning tasks to make their unit of progress. Reward rapid progress and more students will progress rapidly. Be patient with slow progress. Let it happen, and accept no substitute for the day's workload of progress.

You may be thinking, "Why not go all the way, and say that the fourth thing that needs to be gotten rid of is the schools?" Schools can be wonderful places for all sorts of person-building activities that are more like recreation or self-directed study than they are like mandated academic work.

Once the academic workload is complete, the free part of the school day begins. There's sports, computer time, games, library access, social time, dance and music and poetry, painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, vocational shops, creative writing groups, film clubs, debating societies, drama clubs, weight-loss programs, yoga, aerobics, a million possibilities - none of them very costly - all of them done on the school premises.

The time the students spend at school is the same under this proposal as it is right now - they go home at exactly the same time as they do now - but they go more empowered, smarter, more enlivened, more capable, less-alienated and better prepared for the world after high school.

They have the "go-anywhere" thinking skills that complete an adult human being and that enable that person to be a citizen of the world. That passport is the most beautiful and good gift that a community can give to its children.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident.

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