bringing schools back into our communities
Setting aside the voucher debate for a minute – because Kyle is right, to some degree it can’t hurt to at least try these various ideas out – I’d like to visit briefly the concept of the school itself as an essential part of one’s community. Because it seems to me that the “public” school has been cordoned off from the wider community that it is at least nominally a vital part of, and turned rather into a glorified baby-sitting institution.
I suppose the reasons for this are manifold. I probably wont’ get to all of them now. For one, schools are simply too big. I’ve said it before, but I’d like to see smaller schools that are tied closely to their neighborhoods. I’d also like to see a real push for community involvement, including guest teachers in local industries and government. Schools should be more responsive to their communities needs and vice versa. And while I think some very basic national standards are pretty much just necessary at this point (we live in a highly mobile, globalized society afterall) I think that the vast bulk of our curriculum should be implemented at the local level.
I’d like to see some open-source text-book programs take off so that small schools in various localities could team up to provide really great, cheap material. No reason why all these small schools couldn’t be constantly working together – and not just within each other’s districts. Connectivity has become much cheaper, faster, and more important than ever before. Schools need to use it, or else autonomy becomes a stagnating force rather than a force for creativity.
Beyond this, though, I’d like to see programs set up that actually addressed community needs. For instance, in areas with large forests and forest-fire problems, including fire science options at the high school level makes a lot of sense. Focused trade school options are also vital, because as I’ve said countless times, not every kid is an academic and predisposed to liberal arts, college, and so forth. (One interesting thing to note about the “terrible” condition of schools, and especially graduation rates, is that they’re not really any worse than they were five decades ago. Only now there are fewer blue collar jobs available to non-school types. So we should cater our schools to creating skilled workers such as carpenters and masons as well as lawyers-and-doctors-to-be. And yes, there is real room for some private involvement here, in apprenticeship type programs….)
In any case, creating small schools solves a lot of problems but it isn’t cheap. You need more facilities, more teachers, and so forth. One way to offset this is to cut back on administration costs. For one thing, smaller schools are easier to administrate. You might even be able to get away with one principle for several schools, and have assistants there instead, or “department chair” type teachers who do that work on a rotating basis. Breaking up school size and class size also makes teaching a lot more appealing and reduces the need for other perks like tenure. Students, teachers, and parents are all better able to navigate the school. Big schools are daunting, unfamiliar and chaotic.
I’d like to see, quite literally, corner schools – kind of like the days of “corner stores” which have now all vanished in the face of big grocery chains and super Wal*Marts. Because corner schools would be personable. They’d be right there in your neighborhood. Elementary schools tend to be closer to this model. For some reason we go from a dozen or so elementary schools in a mid-size town to one or two high schools. It doesn’t make sense. And if you’re worried about sports, there’s really no reason why schools couldn’t team up to create a good football team. But even better than that, you’d have lots more sports teams and lots more kids would get a chance to play – even if the teams themselves weren’t quite as star-studded, and the games were not quite as good. Still, it would level the playing field, so to speak. And that’s a good thing.
If the best way to achieve this model is through charters, great. Indeed, maybe even to some small degree charters can find their place in the formation of smaller schools though I remain skeptical. One thing is certain – it will take creativity to get to a better educational model, and it’s important to keep the discussion going.