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Archive for Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Back to basics?

August 20, 2002

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English classes certainly wouldn't be considered an educational "frill," but the Lawrence school district is right to look at ways to focus its efforts.

A review of course offerings at Lawrence high schools is sure to spur a "back-to-basics" debate among many local residents.

In the current tight financial climate, which may become even more severe in coming months, many people may wonder why students at Lawrence and Free State high schools need to be able to choose from 30 different classes in the English department alone. What happened to basic English classes for each grade level, many people may ask. Isn't it more important to teach the basics than to offer semester-long courses in "Comparative Mythology" and "20th Century Literature"?

Local school officials deserve some credit for also recognizing the need to ask those questions. That's why they are starting this year to look at ways to better serve students by trimming the number of curriculum options.

World literature, 20th Century literature, Shakespeare and creative writing all are topics worthy of study by high school students. If they aren't covered in individual classes, they would be included in English survey classes. None of the topics covered by current classes is outside the mainstream of English studies. There are two main questions the review should consider:

l Do the classes being offered best serve students? This question should be the guiding principle for those making the decisions.

l Is the district squandering limited resources by offering so many different classes?

High school course offerings of a generation ago were much narrower than they are today. All students were taught basically the same principles using the same literature as a base. The curriculum was intended to offer students a broad sampling of information. Almost every course included material that at least some students found boring, but they were introduced to it nonetheless.

If students can develop the same skills and expertise by focusing on specific topics in which they are more interested, why not let them pursue those classes?

One reason for reducing the offerings might be to save money. Does having so many class offerings result in many classes that are smaller than average? Obviously, it is more expensive for the schools to conduct classes with 10 or 15 students than with 20 or 25. Some classes are bound to be smaller because of their topic, but class size must be one consideration in making curriculum decisions. Teacher preparation time also may be an issue; planning time would be increased for teachers preparing for several different courses.

School districts across the state are having to make some tough decisions and find ways to increase their efficiency. Certainly, most school district patrons wouldn't favor any measures that would compromise the education Lawrence students receive in a subject as basic as English, but there may be a more efficient way to provide that education.

Efficiency is good, and probably necessary, in the current financial climate. More isn't always better, and now certainly is the time for the district to focus its efforts on providing the best basic education for students.

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