Dick Lilly recently wrote a fine article on some current improvements in graduation rates in Everett schools. The story described some of the methods used to achieve success. One small item mentioned a course in technology that had been dropped because the kids found it so boring they often didn't attend. The course was aimed at understanding technology, something that most modern kids already seem to have absorbed, in the crib perhaps, and the students were bored to death in the class.
The decision by Everett schools to examine the curriculum and take steps to make sure what is taught is relevant seems to make so much sense it's hard to comprehend why this kind of thinking isn't applied in all schools.
As a former member of Seattle School Board, Lilly knows as well as anyone how challenging it is for a school board or school administrators to change curriculum. It's a battleground out there. There are some folks who still talk about teaching the basics — readin', writin', and 'rithmetic — and abandoning all that fluff like art or music. Note the recent flap in Texas where the adoption of a new history text book included a whole new slant toward the Civil War and the KKK. Another battle is currently taking up valuable time in Seattle over the adoption of a new math text book. The lines are drawn and both sides have very credible experts to confirm their position.
Curriculum struggles have existed since we began public education administered by local school boards. We have no national curriculum simply because there never could be agreement on what is important to teach and what isn't.
America is at it's best largely because of our differences. Not having a national curriculum is likely part of our greatness, but also part of our weakness. We can't agree on what's important to know and what isn't. The dustups over Washington state'ês standardized tests are a good example of how hard agreement is at any level, much less nationally.
Angst over what we teach peaks every decade or so. When the Russians launched the Sputnik, the world's first satellite, America went into panic mode, declaring we didn't have the scientists or engineers. It was partly true, but the response and the remedy was ill-conceived and overkill.
It resulted in college math, chemistry, and physics professors writing new curriculum and textbooks to be taught in high schools. It was great for high IQ kids going on to the university, but was pure nonsense for many kids who had other jobs in mind that did not require higher math skills. The truck driver, fireman, fisherman, minister, or musician need not know how to solve quadratic equations every day to make a living. As a result thousands of kids stopped taking math, chemistry, and physics classes because the curriculum simply did not meet their needs, while a good general science curriculum might have.
One class that few schools teach is decision making. We all assume kids are simply born with the ability to make logical decisions. They aren't. Only a few parents work at teaching kids how to make good decisions, and schools don't recognize logical decision-making as a necessary part of curriculum. Great segments of our population grow up without decision-making skills simply because they never have been taught at home or in schools.
Advertisers and lenders prey on people who can't make informed or logical decisions. Large segments of our population actually don't know how to analyze complex problems that are part of good decision making. Instead, they are expected to learn how to solve math problems dealing with orbiting satellites, but never how to make the connection between the logic in higher math and how to purchase a home, buy a new car, or raise a child.
Parents who do teach decision making as a life skill do so on a daily basis, especially with younger children. It'ês simple: they ask their kids questions. A dialogue might be what happens if you miss the school bus? Or what happens if you jump in mud puddles with your best new clothes on? As kids get older questions branch out into more complicated responses and questions. It is a process which employs logic and analysis.
Agreed parenting and teaching are difficult, but making decisions also trains us how to think. We learn to make transitions from one possibility to another. Good teachers and good parents do it without thinking, but clearly there seems much to be gained if we actually recognized it as a valuable tool in learning and maybe an official course.
Lilly made another important point which we systemically seem to overlook. It isn't always the curriculum that is the problem; it can also be the simple conclusion reached by some kids that no one really cares about them. Parents are busy, teachers are required to cover a certain amount of material to get ready for the state tests, and the adults don't have the time to sit down with kids and listen to their concerns about their future or how to decide what to do with their lives.
Complicating the problems for school administrators and school boards is that there are great teachers out there who aren't teaching history or math and yet may be the most valuable teacher in a building, because they know how to motivate kids to learn. Just imagine what one of those incredible teachers could achieve if they could teach a class in decision making, or music, or physics classes for kids with little interest in higher math. That happened when Dr. Edward Teller, the great mind in nuclear physics, taught the most popular class at the the University of California Berkeley campus: "Physics for Non Physics Majors."
Because of having a grandchild there, I have observed a teacher at Kamiakin Junior High School in Kirkland who, because of his amazing energy, dedication and motivational skills, raises the standards of every child in the school and the quality of every program in the school. He is capable of sweeping everyone into a web of believing they can be the very best. He doesn't teach math, science, or literature. He teaches band and orchestra. He is demanding, expecting excellence, perfect attendance, and behavior to match. His spirit engages the whole school in greater achievement. Yet in many school districts music is considered a frill and unimportant.
His name, by the way, is Ward Brannman (the winner of KING5's "best favorite teacher" award in 2009)
Lilly understands that improving education is complex. He understands that curriculum needs to be updated and current. And most of all he realizes great teachers are necessary. The problem in education is more likely that we have people making educational decisions about curriculum and how to evaluate teachers who never themselves learned how to make good decisions.