Our public schools don't need tinkering; they need an overhaul

Once more, Arizona's education system fails to make the grade, according to a discouraging report from Education Week. In its most recent Quality Counts survey, the Washington, D.C.-based publication has added a "Chance-for-Success Index."

An overview to the report credited to "The Editors" starts with an overly long title, part of which reads: "... track state efforts to create seamless education systems from early childhood to the world of work." Or, as the publication states, in a surely unintentional but nevertheless Orwellian choice of words, from "cradle to career."

"The Editors" further expound: "Smart states, like smart companies, try to make the most of their investments ... ." Investments, in this case, being our children's education. On second thought, perhaps it's the children themselves: After all, the piece goes on to talk about "human capital."

And it includes all those buzzwords so dear to educational bureaucrats such as "accountability," "assessment," "state standards," blah, blah, blah.

While no one is arguing Arizona schools are sterling examples of progressive, vital educational institutions, the fix, contrary to what a recent Arizona Daily Star editorial might have you believe, does not lie with the Legislature alone. Indeed, part of the problem is publications such as Education Week that promote "tracking" and "standardization" and other sorry tools so dear to officials' hearts that fail to provide necessary critiques of the nation's public-school system.

Another part of the problem is the mainstream media passively accepting and, without providing even a minimal critical analysis, disseminating alarmist information based on policy makers' perverse view of what education should be.

From its inception, public education in this country has existed to serve the needs of the state and the economy. To simplify: In the 19th century, a group of men and women known as progressives succeeded in transforming education into a state-funded institution. The reasons behind this push are complex and numerous, but it's no accident that it occurred concurrently with two nation-altering events: massive industrialization and a large influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Today, what we are left with is the tattered remains of the progressives' legacy, one we mistakenly believe needs only more rigorous standards and better testing methods in order to be effective.

It may be a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Do public schools reflect a deteriorating society struggling in the midst of a crumbling culture, or is our nation's flailing attempt to keep from drowning in an uncertain world reflected in the educational system? But the answer is moot unless we accept that merely tinkering with the current system is of questionable value.

Change is always unsettling, but one thing educators agree on is the need to keep children engaged in the learning process. There are proven models of education in use today that are doing a better job of it than the average public school, with its outdated methodology and mandated constraints severely limiting teachers' ability to creatively respond to the needs of students, as well as students' capacity to retain their inherent desire to learn. Implementing any one of those models would be an improvement.

One thing is certain: Students filling out ovals on a computer-graded test while spending their days in an environment not conducive to learning is failing a large number of our children. And though many policy makers believe the answer lies with increased rigor, standardization and wider testing, the fact is their decisions about educational reform are largely informed by concerns about global economic competitiveness. Sadly, and through little fault of their own, legislatures and even some educators are locked in a self-perpetuating system valuing accountability over vision.

Publications such as Education Week don't generally use words like "justice," "privilege" and "equity," but high school students I've talked with are smart enough to understand some of their peers are getting a better public education simply based on accidents of birth. Until the state Legislature is able to ensure the same quality of education for children from the southside as those from the foothills, don't talk to me about a legislative fix.

Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, but we are sending them mixed messages. While we preach the value of a good education, our society's institutions reward entrepreneurial prowess over intellectual accomplishment. I've had teachers tell me some students believe passing the AIMS test will have no bearing on their lives.

Maybe these students are correct. Maybe if they grow up to earn enough and spend enough, they'll meet their own success index. And honestly, isn't this what we are telling them it's all about?

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