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David Hanlin: Education reform should reach beyond public schools

September 04, 2013|By DAVID HANLIN

My children all attended Washington County Public Schools, and I am very happy with the overall education they received. But, public school may not be for every family. Some opt for private or homeschooling. What is important is that all children get an education that best prepares them to contribute to society and that gives them the best chance for happiness as adults. Traditionally, homeschooling and private schooling are viewed as being distinct from public schooling. However, I suspect these approaches to educating children are likely to become increasingly interconnected as education continues to undergo major reform. 

The 2004 report to the National Governors Association (NGA) entitled “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts” found that high school graduates were not prepared for the intellectual demands of adult life. Included among the reforms outlined in the report was the creation of a more rigorous nationwide set of common standards, known as the Common Core State Standards. As a result of these new standards being adopted by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), states have developed more rigorous curricula aligned with these standards. Additionally, the reforms call for new teacher evaluation methods, more sophisticated data management systems, and interventions to turn around the lowest performing schools.

These measures became controversial when the U.S. Department of Education got behind these reforms and created a grant program to encourage their implementation. This grant program has come to be known as Race to The Top (RTTT). While RTTT is focused on public education, the consequences are significant for all in education. Maryland received an RTTT grant and is actively participating in the process.

New curriculum, staff development and new assessments required to implement these reforms are costly to public school systems. The pressures of increasing rigor are not insignificant. Teachers must increase the rigor of what is taught and adopt new methods of teaching. With new expectations, the way student learning is assessed has to change. The old tools for assessing student achievement are no longer wholly relevant. The related effort to tie teacher performance evaluation to student success is thus complicated by the uncertainty over how to measure student achievement.

Despite the RTTT grant, public education at the school system level is facing tightening financial support. Private schools do not participate directly in RTTT, nonetheless they are not immune to the changing world of education. Private schools are having to reform and invest in teaching capabilities to compete for students, especially at the high school level. But, private schools are facing pressure from parents wrestling with mounting tuition.

Everywhere, those in education are responding to mounting pressures for reform. Colleges and universities were partners in creating the Common Core and helped align and integrate it with curricula beyond high school. Thus, it has the benefit of enhancing college and career readiness for all students. An example of this is seen in Washington County, where Hagerstown Community College has created the “Middle College” in partnership with Washington County Public Schools. This program allows high school students to complete their coursework on the college campus, leading to a college degree at the same time as a high school diploma.

I suspect that traditional distinctions among public, private and home schooling are likely to change. In the future, public school systems are likely to enter into arrangements to open individual classes to these nontraditional students. For example, private school and homeschooled students don’t always have access to costly teaching environments, like chemistry labs. I suspect in the future they will.

Within schools, innovative reforms to traditional schooling are under way. Some already blur the distinction between grade levels. Students are being taught at the level at which they are ready to learn. For example, a 6-year-old would normally be in first grade, but if that child has an aptitude for math, might be taught material currently thought of as being for a fourth-grader.

Even the notion of “a school” is changing. In public schools, online materials are regularly used to enhance learning. Colleges have gone even further. It is now possible to earn a college degree without ever stepping on campus. It is only a matter of time until this notion becomes an option for at least some high school students.

Adhering to old notions of a public education will only delay, if not stifle, innovation. Boards of education should think broadly about their role in educating children, beyond that of just the public school system. State governments should review laws and rules that limit innovation. More flexibility needs to be granted to local school systems so they can better respond to the needs of the community’s children. These reforms will require creative thinking at all levels in order to successfully navigate the emerging new world of educating our children.


David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is davidhanlin54@gmail.com.

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