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Archive for Saturday, April 20, 1991

SATURDAY COLUMN

April 20, 1991

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Hooray for George Bush and his desire to revamp or "re-invent" the United States system of education. Such a project is long overdue!

Unfortunately, but as might be expected, those who are the quickest to try to throw cold water on the president's plan are those in education. They counter by suggesting Bush's plan is more political in nature and merely "nice-sounding" rather than having any substance?

So, what's new?

For years, the U.S. was a leader in most every measurable facet of industry, business, science and public education. The growth and expansion of the U.S. was the envy of the rest of the world. But gradually, a philosophy crept across the country that suggested it was wrong to focus attention on those who excel. Pride in craftsmanship and quality was of less importance than mass production. More attention was supposed to be directed to the masses. No one was supposed to feel inferior. In education, this was reflected in a number of ways.

LOCALLY, FOR example, school officials, whether of their own volition or following instructions of the school board, would not release the names of honor roll students, the true achievers of the school system, to the news media. Somehow, emphasis on excellence, the academic achievers, was viewed as a put-down or slap in the face for those who didn't make the good grades. Consequently, in order not to offend anyone or make anyone feel bad, honor rolls were temporarily eliminated. This is just a small example of how school programs gradually shifted their focus from excellence and competition to a plan to accommodate the average student.

In fact, one Kansas University faculty member, who was assigned to work with gifted students the Merit scholar type told a Journal-World reporter he thought too much emphasis was placed on outstanding students and more work and attention should be directed to the average or less-than-average student.

In education, mediocrity seemed to be the name of the game. Don't do anything that separates the truly outstanding students from the poorer students. Everyone is to be treated the same, and if someone doesn't seem to be able to measure up to others in his or her class, place the blame on the student's background, social situations or other factors. Don't suggest the student might be lazy or that he or she might be involved in excessive use of drugs or alcohol.

TEACHERS were cautioned not to discipline too severely and, consequently, there was far too little control of student behavior.

During this period when America's educational system was in a steep slide, governments and education officials in other countries initiated opposite approaches to education. They demanded top performance, and competition among students was intense. Now, after many years of accepting mediocre performances, there is widespread concern about what has happened to education in the U.S. and why American students fall behind similar-age students from many other countries in numerous academic areas.

Bush has called for many changes, but within hours of the president's news conference at which he outlined his desire for a total re-evaluation of our educational program, his critics were eager to say why his plan would not work. The fact is far too many in education do not like change. They are comfortable with the status quo, and many older individuals in education don't like the possibility of having to make changes in their own teaching techniques. Perhaps some don't like the prospect of tougher evaluations of their teaching skills and the results they achieve or fail to achieve in their respective classrooms.

It is far easier for educators and those presenting themselves as social-issue watchdogs to say why Bush's plan won't work than it is to figure out a way to bring about meaningful, positive, productive changes.

BUSH WANTS to shake up the entire educational system. He wants educators, private citizens and American businesses to come up with ideas of how to do a better job in educating the young people of this nation. He wants testing and performance reports. He favors open schools, where parents have the right to enroll their children in whatever school they desire. He wants to make appropriations of $1 million for new prototype schools one in each of the country's 435 congressional districts and one for each U.S. senator and he wants to make the nation's schools more accountable with tougher standards in math, science, English, history and geography.

Bush wants to break the current mold, which is shaping our nation's education system.

WHY SHOULDN'T Lawrence taxpayers know who are the best teachers in the local school system? Why shouldn't local taxpayers know how Lawrence students, in fourth, eighth and 12th grades compare with similar students throughout Kansas and the country? Why shouldn't better teachers be rewarded with higher pay scales than the average or poor teachers? Why shouldn't there be comparisons of the academic achievements of students in all of Lawrence's elementary and junior high schools so parents would know where students are learning the most about various subjects? Which schools have the best teachers?

Bush's plan makes a great deal of sense.

Hopefully, it will carry over into higher education. Maybe such an emphasis might get the attention of many Kansas legislators, for example, who seem to champion mediocrity. Such lawmakers would prefer to have "X" number of average or mediocre schools rather than to provide the funds, and have the political courage, to develop a truly superior statewide system of higher education a nationally recognized "flagship" institution supported by an outstanding system of other state universities and community colleges. Kansas State University should aim to be the nation's finest land-grant school, and KU's goal should be to be one of the nation's outstanding state-aided comprehensive research institutions.

Bush's message and philosophy need to be hammered into the heads of Kansas lawmakers.

Just as KU alumni and friends are eager for their university to excel, local taxpayers should want the Lawrence public school system to set a goal of being the "flagship" of Kansas elementary and secondary education. It would seem reasonable to expect that in a university setting such as Lawrence, the public school system would be outstanding. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing whether this is the case, with many suggesting local schools are not as good as some may believe. These critics claim the Lawrence school system continues to try to ride on the reputation it earned years ago, not on its current performance.

Bush's plan comes at an ideal time with two new members just elected to the local school board. Whether or not two members can make much of a dent in the thinking of other board members remains to be seen, but hopefully, Bush's program, the support it is going to receive from major American businesses and the increased attention the president's plan will focus on education all will cause taxpayers to demand better performance from school board members, teachers and administrators.

Testing, standards, teacher competence, choice of schools, better teacher pay, new innovative ways to teach . . . all make a great deal of sense. Why not have Lawrence, the state of Kansas and KU, be national leaders, a beacon of success for the rest of the nation to try to emulate.

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