Magazine article USA TODAY

Restructure Our Schools - Now!

Magazine article USA TODAY

Restructure Our Schools - Now!

Article excerpt

Tim had a long history of failure in school. He had been held back in elementary school and had flunked enough classes in junior and senior high that he was two years behind his graduating class. He frequently was sent to the principal's office for disciplinary infractions and poor attendance. Tim's mother maintained that she was doing the best she could with him at home, but he caused her constant problems and she had no real means of controlling him. Tim was another 17-year-old freshman in high school with virtually no realistic hope of earning a diploma. (Although Tim is a composite character, the circumstances described are typically factual.)

Traditional approaches to learning had been, and would continue to be, unsuccessful in educating Tim. Fortunately for him, however, our school district entered into an agreement this year with a neighboring district that had an established alternative school for students with persistent educational deficiencies. The school focuses all of its resources, including specially trained teachers, on individualized learning programs designed to allow students to remediate and make rapid progress in recovering academic credits. Tim has made up almost a year's worth of work in his first six months at the alternative school and is determined to graduate with his class - a realistic goal for him for the first time in years.

Tim's difficulties are the same as those shared by many students, perhaps millions considering that national dropout rates exceed 25%. Traditional schools simply can not meet the complex educational needs of today's students. Reformers assault the schools every few years with a new wave of well-intentioned strategies to improve education. Some are good, and plans for increased academic excellence, total quality management, outcome-based education, site-based management, and others all have supporters and claims for effectiveness. Nevertheless, all of these ideas will meet with limited success until the basic structure of public education is altered as dramatically as the students have changed.

A number of social conditions have developed over the years to create almost insurmountable challenges for the public schools. Students have become more difficult to control, or even influence, by the time they reach their teens. As they approach their late teens, they may begin to defy institutions such as the schools, police, and their parents with impunity. The young people of today are more sophisticated, o streetwise, and they have come to understand the limitations of those in authority. Students who are experiencing failure at school become uncooperative as their options become more limited and frequently they exercise the only real choice they retain - to drop out. Very bright pupils may become bored in school and begin to display the same disruptive behaviors and poor attendance patterns that lead to under-achievement and a lack of success.

Single parents have the added burden of dealing with defiant teens while trying to earn a living and maintain a household. Parental authority is eroded further by teen independence brought about by young people working at jobs, owning cars, and being encouraged by peers.

Many students lack even the most rudimentary scholastic skills and motivation to achieve. Their learning styles are varied and often undetermined by schools that must accommodate increased enrollments without adequate diagnostic staffing. Language and cultural factors also impact both student and teacher expectations. Some students have special education challenges that require extensive resources to meet their physical, mental, and emotional needs. The list goes on and on. Yet, the approach largely has been to gather all of these students into "the school" and hope that a way can be found to educate them to meet world-class standards. Continuing flat rates, or even declines, on SAT and other standardized test scores, high dropout rates in both secondary schools and colleges, and millions spent by industry to train employees in basic skills make it clear that these goals are not being reached. …

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