Enlightened Education

It's time for Arizona to enact a new way of educating our children.

You can be sure none of Arizona's tourist brochures tout the state as one of the worst places in the country to raise children. The public education system, or what passes for one, is a mess, and no amount of mandated testing, either state or federal, is likely to fix it.

But with President Bush recently taking every available opportunity to praise those states that have fallen in lockstep with his administration's No Child Left Behind Act, Arizona has a unique, historic opportunity to do what it does best: thumb its nose at the folks in Washington by telling them, "We don't need your stinkin' money."

The federal law is a Draconian measure nearly 700 pages long, forcing states and students to jump through hoops in the name of "standards" and "accountability," or risk losing federal aid. Besides increasing annual student testing--a step many educators view with skepticism--one of the most egregious and controversial provisions of the law requires school districts to provide military recruiters with access to public secondary school grounds as well as contact information for all students.

Arizona can just say no. No, we don't want the feds telling us when to test our kids; no, we don't want to make it any easier for Arizona children to be recruited to defend a civilization choking on the fumes of its own excess. Yes, we can do a better job of educating our children, and we are going to prove it. We are going to prove it not by some half-baked, same-old, play-it-again "reform," but by radically changing the system of education. It's going to shake up the educational establishment, but it's going to finally allow kids to learn. And our children are going to learn in meaningful ways, not in ways that get them to pass tests but fail life.

We are going to accomplish this by ensuring that every person who teaches in the state of Arizona, from preschool through high school, has a liberal arts undergraduate degree as well as certification in the Montessori method of education. (More than a century ago, while American educators were looking to Germany for their models, Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, devised a remarkable program that works. Check it out yourself.) All Head Start programs will be Montessori programs. All private preschools will be required to adopt the method or lose their license to do business in the state. The artificial and arbitrary "elementary," "middle" and "secondary" levels of education will be eliminated.

Publicly supported education will begin at the age of 3 when children are ready to enter their neighborhood school. From 3 until approximately 11 or 12 (depending on the needs of each child), all children will enjoy the benefits of a Montessori education. Young people from the southside and those from the foothills will be using the same learning tools in identical environments. (Part of the Montessori method involves providing carefully designed learning conditions and specialized equipment.)

When you visit one of these schools, you will see children actively engaged in learning. You will not find teachers teaching; instead, you will find young people asking questions when they need to as they engage in the process of self-teaching. You will never hear a teacher yelling. You will never see a child humiliated. You will marvel at how quiet and industrious young children of 4 or 5 can be as they work, eat or create art. You will be amazed to see children clean up after themselves on their own initiative.

With the hormone-driven years between roughly 11 and 17, we leave classroom learning and jump full-tilt into experiential learning. Since the students have already gone through approximately eight years of Montessori, they should have at least the skill level of today's high school graduates. Depending on the individual student, the next four to six years will be spent engaged in myriad physical activities including everything from learning to build a computer to acting. On any given day, you'll find the students cooking, doing yoga, practicing dance, making music, changing tires, gardening, sewing, designing and constructing solar collectors, practicing martial arts, meditating, creating art works or any number of other activities. Older students may choose to apprentice in an occupation they find of interest. And while they are occupied in these various pursuits, the young people will both read and write about what they are doing.

At 18 or so, students will return to the classroom for a period of reflection. With their peers and the guidance of a Montessori teacher, they will evaluate their future options. Prepare for college? Volunteer for a year or two in a program abroad? Begin pursuing specialized education for a particular career path? If a student elects to go to college, anywhere from six months to two years of specialized courses may be required in order to prepare.

But what of assessment and accountability? How will we know our children are learning what they need to know? Consider this: Assessment, standardized testing and accountability are constructs of the modern mind. Some of the most enduring philosophy, art and literature was created centuries earlier--long before anyone dreamed up concepts like "educational modality" or words like pedagogy.

We will know our children are successfully educated when they read for pleasure and communicate effectively; when they can cook a healthy meal; when they can raise vegetables and enjoy the arts; when they can balance their checkbooks and run a mile with ease; when they laugh more than they cry and when they've learned compassion for every living creature.

When that day comes, no child will be left behind, at least in Arizona.

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