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Quality education on individual levels

Fri, May 10th, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

By Eric Leitzen

The last time we met, I discussed the latest punch-up dust-up in the wild world of education, a sort of “Rumble in the Blackboard Jungle” if you will. On one side, there’s the ideas of STEM and the Common Core, who stress a Math and Science based course of education. There’s a lot of influence being put on so-called “outcome based” education in this camp, which is a teacher’s way of saying there’s going to be tests. Naturally, this sort of approach is being challenged from the other side of the school spectrum and the defenders of Humanities courses like History and Psychology, along with Arts classes like Music and, well, Art. School is not simply a place to learn how to pass tests and follow formulas, they say, it is a place to grow as a human being. However, America’s declining test scores and scores of new graduates lacking in what appears to be basic skills would beg to differ on the main goal of education. So, how do we go about making amends between the hard-focus STEM folks and the enrichment-minded folks on the other side?

Now, being the good, moderate, independent thinker that I am, my first thought was a simple one: why can’t we just do both? My wife hates it when I say things like that, and most of the time I just say it to get out of making a tough decision (pizza or Chinese for dinner? Don’t make me choose!), but you can only have so many egg rolls on a pizza before you start to resemble an obese slug. As harsh as that analogy is, it’s sadly what’s happening with our current education system: we want to encourage the best, but at the same time keep ourselves from discouraging the ones who aren’t doing as well, and we’re ending up with egg roll pizza. Something has to change, something’s got to give, and you just might be surprised to know that, in some ways, it’s already happening.

I taught for a few years in a big district. Big as in, the third biggest district in an entire state big. Naturally, this big big district had a big big body of students, and they went to separate schools all over the big big town. It was my experience as a sub that lead me to a peculiar discovery one day: a tech high school. Now, being raised in a town of less than 3,000 (and then moving to one of just over 300) I only ever knew one kind of high school. But down there, there are high schools for the artistically minded, the engineering minded, and even a basic skills high school for the kids who just wanna get out with a diploma. The more I look around at other districts, the more I’m seeing this happening all over. Yes, it seems for all our talk of making sure our schools are teaching the same, doing the same, and that the students are learning the same, there’s a crafty little shell game going on behind the scenes that makes it not so. On the surface, we pretend that all the schools have the same approach, opportunities, and all that good stuff… but we know there’s got to be something going on behind the scenes.

And so, I say, why not bring it out in the open? It’s already happening, so why not put the money and the support behind it to really make it viable? I mean, let’s face it: it’s a simple fact all children are (ready for this?) different. Some really love the idea of learning as an abstract concept; others just want to graduate and go on to fixing up old cars somewhere, and both sides are absolutely right. We’re forcing all of these diverse students with diverse interests to take the same classes when, at any given point, 20-30 percent probably couldn’t care less. I went to high school with kids that couldn’t have cared about Shakespeare if he walked through the door juggling chainsaws, and on the other hand some never really wanted to know how to run a plunge router. Yes, STEM and the Common Core can work for some students, and work really well, but others really are better suited to discuss Socrates or Da Vinci or Stephen Hawking.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes: high school juniors and seniors discussing pocket dimensions and string theory in the same class as a student who just wants to graduate and start making his own way in life. The last big movement in education sought to bring everyone to the same level socially and educationally, and as a result the top and bottom students, the ones that need to be nurtured the most, are falling through the cracks. It’s not a question of who is better or worse or who is smarter or dumber, it’s a question of people being different, and sometimes wanting different things.

So how is Fillmore County, Minnesota perfectly equipped to combat this? Well, I call it the Fillmore County System of Educational Self-Determination. In other words, let the kids decide what they want to do. We’ve got five high schools in the county: Fillmore Central, Mabel-Canton, Kingsland, Rushford-Peterson, and Lanesboro. Even when I was a student here, it was known that some schools had a stronger focus than others. Why not make it official? Make one a tech high, one an art school, one for Math and Science, one for Humanities, and one for Business-based education. With things like open enrollment and school choice, people don’t have to go to their hometown schools anymore, so why not go to the school that best fits what they want to do in life?

Rather than trying to cram fifteen different pegs into a round hole, let’s make it easier for our children to head toward a career they want with less of the stuff they couldn’t care less about. Let’s encourage each student to do what’s best for themselves. In these times of tough job markets and high unemployment, we need to start specializing or we will fall behind. I think Fillmore County could serve as a template for better quality education on an individual student level, bringing ahead a new generation of students who not only know what they need to know, but they are willing to put what they have learned to good use to the benefit of everyone.

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