by Steve Liskow
America has a long tradition of belittling teachers and education. Washington Irving may have started with Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," but it has continued unabated.
The closest I remember to a real depiction was the 80s film Teachers with Nick Nolte, and that featured a brilliant substitute who had escaped from a mental hospital. That message was underlined in the film's closing dialogue.
Now, in Jill Biden, we have a champion of education in the White House instead of Betsy DeVos, who expanded the leaks in a sinking ship. The American public school system began its decline decades ago. It became apparent under Reagan when A Nation At Risk was released, but I'm sure my own teachers despaired about how much dumber their new students were, and I will be the first to admit there are many subjects I should know much more about. I looked at a New York Regent's exam from 1920 recently, and I could answer three questions. That was the high school standard a century ago.
What can we do about it? I've argued the topic with other teachers and normal people for at least 30 years, changing my ideas as I see problems and shortcomings, and I still get more blowback than hugs. But here is my comprehensive plan. Remember, I am addressing ONLY public education. I know some of it would cause other problems, but that's OK. Government exists because it can handle complex programs and address issues private enterprise can't encompass.
We wouldn't know if these ideas work for at least a decade, and that's a problem in itself. As a culture, we worship the Quick Fix. Some things take time, though, or we would have found a cure for cancer, solved world hunger, and obviated climate change long ago. Political ideology is a major hindrance, and I have no answer for that, even though it would certainly rear its ugly head in this project. OK, enough disclaimers. Now brace yourself.
ELIMINATE ALL STANDARDIZED TESTS. There are organizations (Tutoring scams and test prep shills) with a huge stake in kids failing, and all the money we spend there could be used for pre-school or reading readiness classes, teacher training and hiring, equipment, and infrastructure. If a million students take the SAT every year, there's 60 or 70 million dollars right there. How many teachers or books or buildings is that? More teachers can mean smaller classes. Besides, a good teacher can tell you if your kid can read, write, count, or handle other material at the appropriate level without those tests anyway. A teacher doesn't have to be a genius, but he or she does need to have common sense and understand the students.
WE NEED A NATIONAL CURRICULUM. I resisted that idea for years, but it's necessary. You'll see why in a minute. We would need teachers from all states and at all levels to cooperate in designing the program. It would make writing the Constitution look like a lunch break, but it's vital. Remember, we only need to get the first two or three years in place right away. We can tweak those and learn from them while we develop the rest, based on the latest knowledge and understanding of learning theory, child development, and the subjects themselves. The content must be factual. No, there was never an effing "War of Northern Aggression." Get over it.
WITH THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM, THERE IS ONLY ONE LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY. Honors, Advanced placement, college prep, general, commercial, etc. go by the wayside. Everyone studies the same material and skills and attains the same degree of proficiency or understanding. This means schools don't need to purchase four sets of books for each grade or subject, saving more money. I recommend a passing grade of 80% and there is no social promotion (Would you like to know that the surgeon operating on you got through med school with extra credit?). The student achieves the grade before advancing. Period.
THE CURRICULUM. I admit, this is much more rigorous than I encountered, but there are tremendous gaps in my knowledge that I'm still beginning to recognize. There are still people who consider me smart, too.
LANGUAGE ARTS. Composition and literature, multi-cultural and diverse. Students must also be able to speak, read, and write fluently in at least one language besides English. Young children learn easily, so introduce a second language in kindergarten. In the U.S., I suggest Spanish or maybe French. Later, maybe an Asian language and an African language, too (Which mean learning different alphabets), with other languages optional. This also introduces different cultures, value systems, and ways of thinking. A subset of this topic is rhetoric and public speaking (debate?) and maybe journalism. The goal is to instill critical thinking skills and include fact-checking and research.
MATHEMATICS. Start with practical math like making change and advance at least through Trigonometry, preferably Calculus. My math background is a disgrace, and my weakness with algebra forced me to leave my pre-dentistry major for English because I could cope with words, but not numbers.
NATURAL SCIENCE. Biology, chemistry, geology, physics, astronomy, meteorology. Teach the scientific method and lots of lab time.
SOCIAL SCIENCE. World history and American history from several perspectives (Maybe the expansion of the United States from the Native American and Spanish side?). Psychology, sociology, anthropology, civics, economics. Maybe the history should include popular entertainment in the other cultures. My history background is even worse than my math. And I made National Honors Society.
ART. Maybe a better name would be "Aesthetics." Both appreciation and hands-on, including painting, sculpture, and maybe film/video. Performance wouldn't require proficiency, but it will foster understanding and appreciation. Music (history, appreciation, performance on at least one instrument). Again, proficiency isn't vital, but it helps appreciation. Theater arts and drama.
PHYSICAL EDUCATION. Exercise and nutrition and healthy lifestyle. I assume school sports will exist, but with free college tuition (see below), there may be less emphasis on some kids getting into the "right" college for scholarship and turning professional later. Athletic scholarships will be unnecessary and free more funds for other concerns.
HOME ECONOMICS. Cooking and nutrition and housekeeping skills for all genders. Maybe also sewing and tailoring? Even a guy should be able to iron and sew a button on his shirts and do laundry.
MANUAL ARTS. Carpentry, drafting, mechanics, etc. I'm not asking for a generation of skilled artisans, but everyone should be able to change a fuse or a flat tire. A woman I know makes extra money changing her neighbors' automotive oil and mounting their snow tires.
THE STUDENT MUST GRADUATE. There's nothing magic about the age of 16 or 18. A very gifted and motivated student might master all this material at 15. Someone else may be challenged and not finish until 25. It doesn't matter how long, only how well. A responsible citizen can make contributions to the society, and that means education.
UNTIL A PERSON CAN PRODUCE A DIPLOMA, HE CAN NOT VOTE, DRIVE A CAR, OR GET WORKING PAPERS. One of my friends suggested that he shouldn't be able to drink alcohol, either. The car and job are the carrot to keep the student working. There is a big reward at the end. It's called adulthood. The national curriculum means someone can't move to another state or town and get an easier school. Everyone leaves with the same skills and knowledge, but certainly with different strengths, interests, and weaknesses. Life will be easier for future employers, and students have more information to plan the rest of their lives.
One drawback: There might be a criminal industry in forged diplomas, the equivalent of academic bootlegging. See? I even give you a new plot idea.
A STUDENT WITH A DIPLOMA FROM THIS CURRICULUM ATTENDS COLLEGE FREE. At least through a Baccalaureate degree. Students won't need the remedial work so many colleges are forced to offer today. That frees up more funds, and might mean fellowships or financial aid for graduate degrees or extra training.
Some students with a physical handicap or emotional/mental challenge may not be capable of mastering this curriculum. Their care and special needs should be taken care of until they reach adulthood. What happens next is a question government needs to address. It's beyond the scope of my plan, but it has to be acknowledged.
If the students are all in school, jobs go to adults. When the students graduate, they are equipped to fill more jobs and have more choices.
Is this perfect? Of course not. It's idealistic and I've overlooked or omitted many issues and problems. We can finance practical solutions if we really want to. I think it would take two or three years to develop the primary curriculum and to create reading lists. Use this system for 13 years or until a substantial number of people graduate with the new standards to determine how well it works and to shore up problems that we find.
The definition of the school day and year are open to discussion, but it would be convenient if the entire country followed the same calendar. Remember, we aren't an agrarian society anymore that needs summers off so kids can help tend the crops. I'd like to see more flexible scheduling. Maybe five eleven-week sessions with students attending four of them. That's only one example.
How badly do we want it?