It is time to “take back the night” in education. For the first time in history, the percent of 20-to-24 year-olds with a college education will be lower than the previous age 25-30 generation. High school drop out rates are rising because students are bored.
This last decade of No Child Left Behind, the federal hijacking of education policy, has left our children with a narrow, sterile curriculum where our schools are becoming test-prep factories. In a country with the most Nobel Prizes in science, and a record of fostering creativity in the classroom, where American teachers were unique in deciding what to teach, when to teach and how to teach, schools are now forced to deliver a uniform curriculum for uniform assessments.
But Kansas students enter our classroom as unique students with variable ability. They need to leave schools as unique graduates with a variety of skills. Kansas must pull out of the drive to a national curriculum, the Common Core cookie-cutter system that ironically is promoted by the National Governor’s Association.
Education is indeed the major responsibility of each state just as military defense is the responsibility of the federal government. That is not only another reason why the feds should get out of the education business, but it is also the reason why education funding remains Job One with each state. Education policy and education funding must remain in the same hands, so that so-called “visions” do not outstrip resources. The Federal government must stop extorting compliance for 7 cents on the dollar.
But there are those who would shortchange our Kansas students by starving state education funding. They claim to represent business and assert that every dollar that goes into state funding for education is a dollar taken from the pocket of private business. They claim that a dollar will go further in the business sector (yes, to Bermuda and Switzerland). They ignore their own debt to their own public education when they were children. Good businessmen know that the future of Kansas relies on future generations of well-educated citizens.
We can save money and make education dollars go farther in three ways.
1) Materials and staffing are consumed in the over-assessment of our students. It is time to eliminate all external testing. That is any test not developed by the teacher for his or her own use in advancing the students’ in-class progress. Any farmer knows that the more we weight them, the less time we have to feed them. The U.S. already tests students twice as much as any other country and is headed for even more testing. Turning this around requires rescinding much legislation. But this will go far to re-professionalize teaching, stop the mass exodus of our best veteran teachers, and help recruit our best students as future teachers.
2) Expensive technology that does little more than impress parents is draining resources. Every year, tens of thousands of dollars in equipment that was new just 4-5 years earlier becomes obsolete. The hype of technology not only exceeds its value, but we are losing large numbers of boys to videogame addiction while mobile media are preoccupying students in a new social soap opera during school hours.
3) School consolidation remains the “third rail” that no legislator dare touch and the State Board of Education lacks jurisdiction to promote. Yet de-populated western rural communities are consolidating by attrition. Kansas has dropped from 303 to 293 USDs in the last several years with more to come. While small rural schools have a wonderful sense of community, their dwindling class sizes makes them financially unsustainable. While consolidation plans by Legislative Post-Audit and consulting firms are sterile and heartless accounting exercises, the current voluntary consolidations based on which little district goes bankrupt next will result in a haphazard gerrymandered system down the road. Even with small town identity at stake, I believe commonsense rural Kansans can to work together with a person with integrity and whom they trust to consolidate in a way that maintains academic quality without students riding more than an hour to school.
Teacher quality is the final issue I will address. “The company you keep is more important than the tests you take.” We owe it to every Kansas child to interface them with the best teachers appropriate for their education. Sadly, efforts to “lower the barriers” to enter teaching have resulted in lowering the standards. While some folks moved from other occupations to become good teachers, many others made a job move without gaining those skills. It takes a competent administrator to recognize and remove an incompetent teacher. But administrators must then have a pool of competent teachers for replacement. Kansas has never produced an excess of quality teachers. The rich context of a face-to-face class is important and no profession is more person-to-person intensive. Online courses are convenient but not effective except for a few “Doogie Howsers.” Jettisoning NCLB and alternate routes and re-establishing teacher professionalism is the biggest step we can take to “taking back the night” in education.
No governor can alone implement these changes. Jurisdictions are with legislators, state board of education members, and Kansans themselves. But the governor can lead, set the stage, and press . The commonsense of Kansans should do the rest.