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Archive for Monday, February 21, 2011

Budget realities force look at education

February 21, 2011

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The budget cutters are out in full force. Tough questions, heretofore unasked and certainly left unanswered, are being pursued with vigor, especially around the possible reallocation of very limited resources. Given a fragile economy and years of overspending, perhaps it is time to get serious about some historically untouchable areas.

Accomplished researchers retained by the College Board think so, and they zeroed in on the need for K-12 school reform. They talked with teachers, students, recent graduates, school administrators, business leaders, and citizens. Here are some of the ideas they brought up, supplemented by my own conversations with educators and others.

More than a few are wondering whether athletics might not be abolished or seriously downsized, passing the savings to health classes that provide exercise and teach lifelong health habits. As the past president of Major League Baseball’s American League, I know full well that the athletic community is certain to be up in arms about this possibility, but many others would be intrigued and willing to hear much more.

Further reshaping our priorities, shouldn’t the number of unmanageable school districts be consolidated, using shared resources — transportation systems, special education, human resources, food service, finance, and insurance? Significant savings could be devoted to enhanced program quality.

Surely the United States does not require 14,000 school districts and the inherent costs.

Digital learning has to be radically ramped up. It is no longer a luxury, no longer an add-on. It should be integrated, via social networks, distance learning anytime, anywhere access, digital home schooling models, video-game learning environments and more, in all classes. This would not only improve the quality of our education but also, in the long run, save money.

Each student should have a computer, training the individual to become a skilled technician. Not without heated debate, some educators want to get rid of all paper and books, and make far more efficient use of time and resources.

In the view of many surveyed, it is time to extend and reshape the traditional school year and day. Many educators believe the United States needs year-round schools with breaks in the winter, spring and summer. And they like the idea of lengthening the school week or day. Perhaps high school could be shortened to three years with enhanced learning.

And what about the idea of adding foreign languages in elementary schools, with a heavy emphasis on global awareness and job skills? Many teachers like the possibility and see it as a valuable pathway for students.

More than a few educators want an end to traditional and often rote-like homework, allowing extra time for internships and community service. This would enhance students’ employability in the private sector and provide valuable information to students on an uncertain career path. There is also renewed interest in middle school and high school vocational education, which could result in early and meaningful skilled employment.

Others see the repayment of college loans after seven years in the classroom as a practical way to attract more and better teachers, while some pointed to the military as a possible source for construction assistance. Some suggest national service to supplement our school staff. The educators know successful school bond issues for construction are few and far between.

And what about giving teachers more say in helping run our schools? Their knowledge and perspective is critical. Some see principals and superintendents as being unresponsive to teacher needs and too subservient to the wishes of school boards. Clearly, the teachers of today want a champion, one that understands the trials and tribulations of the classroom.

In truth, there is a lot of legitimate uneasiness out there among teachers, school administrators, students and their families, prospective employers, and overwhelmed taxpayers. But uneasiness is no excuse for inaction. It is time to address many of the compelling and previously untouchable issues in education, however difficult they may be. Bring on the budget cutters.

— Gene A. Budig was the president or chancellor at three major state universities, including Kansas University. He is now distinguished professor at the College Board in New York City.

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