OPINION

What are schools for?

Cedar Rapids, city of. Cedar Rapids Historical. Rescreen. School days: Edina Donohue stands with her students at the small red-brick Dairydale School. At the time, Dairydale was in the country but the location was at the northeast corner of what today is Mount Vernon Road (Mount Vernon Rd.) and 34th Street (34th St.) SE. Front row, from left: Carl Van Antwerp, Beryl Wood, Marie Kaylar, Allan Nelson, Lumir Stolba, Pluma Terrill, Harold Bean. Middle row: Ernest Wood, Joe Nelson, Walter Woolridge, Ferman Clark, John Grow, Frank Pachta, Marvin Nemecek, Viola Kaylar. Back row: (only six students in this row are identified): Ronald Prior, Lucille Manson, Mae Woolridge, Mae Zrudsky, Mable Van Antwerp, Elmer Nemecek. 1920. (Photo courtesy of Dorothy Nemecek, wife of Marvin Nemecek).
Cedar Rapids, city of. Cedar Rapids Historical. Rescreen. School days: Edina Donohue stands with her students at the small red-brick Dairydale School. At the time, Dairydale was in the country but the location was at the northeast corner of what today is Mount Vernon Road (Mount Vernon Rd.) and 34th Street (34th St.) SE. Front row, from left: Carl Van Antwerp, Beryl Wood, Marie Kaylar, Allan Nelson, Lumir Stolba, Pluma Terrill, Harold Bean. Middle row: Ernest Wood, Joe Nelson, Walter Woolridge, Ferman Clark, John Grow, Frank Pachta, Marvin Nemecek, Viola Kaylar. Back row: (only six students in this row are identified): Ronald Prior, Lucille Manson, Mae Woolridge, Mae Zrudsky, Mable Van Antwerp, Elmer Nemecek. 1920. (Photo courtesy of Dorothy Nemecek, wife of Marvin Nemecek).

This month, Writers Circle members met to discuss what should be the question, “What is the 21st century mission for our public schools?”

Using a framework and background materials from the National Issues Forums as a starting point, the group weighed the pros and cons of three possible approaches:

OPTION 1: Prepare students to be successful in the workplace

Written by Christian Roth

In our discussion, most of the group was inclined toward civic engagement and developing students’ individual potential, but one other possible mission for public schooling was discussed, preparing students for the workforce.

Imagine how practical it would be if the government paid for skill-based training, rather than requiring students to pile up debt to accrue that very same training in university?

Imagine, the USA’s GDP could grow at a rate as fast and as steady as Germany’s.

Imagine how much more clarity there would be in your life if you had chosen and prepared for one profession throughout your public schooling?

Imagine how simple life would be if you didn’t have to spend so much time “finding yourself” while preparing for your career. You might even have time for a hobby.

Of course this approach has some downsides, as well.

Certifications in every field, it seems, are always changing. So how would we train youth today for the workplace of tomorrow?

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And how would schools choose which careers to train students for and which to exclude? What of the students’ wild dreams to be anything they want, or to tap into their buried talents?

And where would the arts fit into such a pragmatic approach to education? Surely, there wouldn’t be time or money remaining for the finer side of human experience.

These concerns are real, and a the group concluded that a balanced approach to education is preferable, including practical skills yes but also engaging a student’s personality and civic duties.

That being said, I personally believe a dose of pragmatism would build concrete results for education that administrators, teachers and students alike could celebrate.

OPTION 2: Prepare students to be active and responsible citizens

Written by Steve Chamberlin

A stronger society, but too narrow a focus

If public schools focused on preparing students to be responsible citizens, the benefits would include increased community involvement and community responsibility. People would take ownership of their communities, which could result in less crime and fewer social needs. Those were some of the advantages perceived by The Gazette Writers Circle from this type of educational focus.

Informed citizens would also force government to be more accountable, which could lead to government that works better and is more efficient. We thought this approach to education might be less expensive than the alternatives, as it wouldn’t have the additional costs of specialized technical instruction or magnet schools inherent to approaches one and three.

We discussed what the curriculum would look like for schools that focused on preparing students to be responsible citizens. Students would study history and gain a strong understanding of our country’s founding documents. There was concern that many Americans couldn’t pass the test required of naturalized citizens, and students should learn about the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and other important aspects of our government.

The curriculum would also include studying diversity and critical thinking. Many in the group expressed concern about the demise of civil discourse, and felt that could be improved by an educational process that encouraged discussion of current issues and consideration of multiple perspectives. (Some noted that’s exactly what we’re doing in The Gazette Writers Circle!)

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Students would also learn about self discipline, financial responsibility and loyalty to the community or country for the greater good. This would include introducing students to the concepts of volunteerism and service to aid in community betterment.

Although we saw a lot of benefits in preparing students to be active and responsible citizens, we thought that emphasizing this type of education might not prepare students sufficiently for employment. It would also result in limited exposure to liberal arts, which would reduce opportunities for students to explore their creative side and perhaps find their true calling.

We discussed several other drawbacks to this emphasis in education. While it is important for students to learn about government and citizenship, we also thought that this type of education can be subject to a political agenda and could be manipulated by those in power at certain times. Although the question “what is a good citizen” seems relatively simple, we recognized that not everyone has the same answer. Who decides that answer and shapes the curriculum?

Community involvement and knowledge of our own country are important, but we also felt that too much of an inward focus could lead to a lack of international engagement. Education must also look outside our own country, or it could lead to isolationism.

The Gazette Writers Circle members felt that more emphasis on civics is an important aspect of education and should be a priority. However, we thought this was too narrow to be the primary focus of public schools and we favored a broad education that included some aspects of this curriculum.

OPTION 3: Help students discover and develop their talents

Written by Russ Gerst

The National Issues Forums guide we reviewed outlined the work of Maria Montessori in the early 20th Century, in which students with learning disabilities were given individualized attention using training strategies that allowed them to “learn” in ways that were appropriate to them.

These strategies could be applied to children of all ability levels via self-directed learning in which the role of the teacher was to control the environment for learning, not the children.

The report also described the research of Howard Gardner, who determined that each individual has multiple “intelligences” and not just a general IQ. Gardner’s research found these intelligences were affected both by genetics as well as experience. Two of these, linguistic and logical-mathematical, are most focused upon in our public schools. The other six — musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist — are not of primary focus, but were recognized by educators as student attributes that could allow those students to “bloom” outside of the standard curriculum.

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These concepts were integrated into modern day magnet schools, so named because the offer curricula that “attract” student enrollment. As noted in the NIF guide, there are more than 3,000 magnet schools now operating in the United States. The goal of these schools is to allow students to decide what interests them and provide tailored teaching to challenge the student’s interest(s).

The Writer’s Circle reviewed this topic and then had a broad discussion about the pros and cons that it presented. Some of the advantages noted were:

• Happier students — at least while in school

• Higher self-esteem and confidence

• Study what you enjoy — do what you love all your life

• Improve entrepreneurship/career flexibility

• Allow more social mobility

• Greater motivation (occupation is not a job, it’s fun)

• Fewer people falling through societal cracks

On the flip side, the group identified concerns of focusing education entirely on this form of training:

• Tremendous responsibility on teachers to help students identify their passions (are current teaching staff capable of and trained to do this?)

• Would require more and diverse resources

• Are students good judges of what drives their passion?

• Will this approach meet society’s needs?

• What would success look like?

This approach seemed to be an idealistic view of education that many in the Writer’s Circle felt we should aspire to, but not at the expense of general liberal arts focused training to allow the individual to function in a civil society.

There was general recognition that while reading, writing and arithmetic (and history and civics) may not be an individual’s passion, these subjects must be part of each child’s education.

Allowing students to find their passion and pursue study that emphasizes that passion was seen as beneficial not only to the individual, but to society in general. The logic was that a person likely would be more passionate about pursuing a career and be more productive, leading to innovation and discovery that would benefit the entire human race (community, nation, and world in general).

OUR CONCLUSION: All of the above, in balance

Written by Bob Elliott

Is preparing your son or daughter to be successful in the workplace more or less important than helping identify and develop his or her talents and skills? How important is learning to be a responsible citizen?

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Achieving a productive balance among those priorities appears to be the best way for schools to prepare young people for the diverse needs and opportunities in our increasingly complex workplace. Providing introductions to such areas as science, math, history, technical and communication skills and the arts provides a solid base from which students can later make informed life decisions.

As a result, we feel a broad liberal arts curriculum, combined with extracurricular activities and effective counseling is the most productive approach for many, if not most, K-12 schools.

And well-planned broad-based curricula should be just that, broad enough to provide students with insights into the wide range of career paths from which they’ll be able to choose.

As a trade school runs the risk of too early placing a young person on a career path that turns out to be inappropriate for him or her, so a college prep curriculum could turn off students who find themselves unable or unwilling to consider progress into higher education.

So with some students’ formal education ending with high school and others continuing into some form of postsecondary education, schools need to be as flexible and as comprehensive as possible in providing effective education for a diverse student preferences and needs.

It also needs to be understood that learning opportunities are often gained as side benefits in unrelated subject areas. For instance, a math class discussion can provide not only knowledge of working with numbers, but also the skill of critical thinking. And while participating in interscholastic sports provides physical exercise and competitive outlets, it also enables life lessons about winning, losing and teamwork.

All these varied components of personal growth and educational maturity take place at different times and places in our lives. But studies make it clear that we’re most receptive to assimilating information and ideas during our early formative years. Thus, parents and K-12 schoolteachers most often have the greatest impact on educational development and, ultimately, character building.

It’s important to understand that teachers, coaches, counselors and administrators are beneficial to students in direct proportion to the abilities and dedication of professionals hired to fill those positions. Effective recruiting, hiring and retaining those educators is vital for any productive curriculum.

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Thus, one of the important questions facing K-12 education is whether local, state, and federal governments are willing and able to adequately fund our schools’ needs. A classroom curriculum based on strong educational principles can be only as strong and productive as the teacher in that classroom.

Unfortunately, in far too many communities schoolteachers are neither sufficiently compensated nor appreciated as professionals performing one of our most singularly important jobs. If there’s finger pointing about that, don’t just target school boards, state legislatures and Congress. Remember, it was Pogo who said in that comic strip so many years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

It’s us, people like you and me, who need to be aware of our schools’ importance and needs. We need to make sure teachers are paid and schools are funded appropriately, because those schools and those teachers have the future of our communities and our nation in their classrooms.

• Members of The Gazette Writers Circle meet monthly to discuss local issues and write opinion pieces about their discussions for The Gazette and online. Comments: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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