Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The New School: Visions of a Future in Education

My idea of virtual school went over like a lead balloon - to borrow a favorite cliche. While it would save a significant amount of money, were it implemented correctly, there is a huge concern that there would be this throng of unsupervised children, and goodness knows we can't have that - although I suspect that it would be far less of a problem than those who've left comments believe it to be.

As an alternative for those parents who don't want their children at home three extra days per week, perhaps a low-cost childcare option could be set-up in one of the former school buildings. Parents would have to pay for those extra three days of school, and those parents who have an exceptional financial need could be given a tuition waiver.

But what is not being recognized in the comments is that having three days of "virtual school" would actually open up a whole new opportunity for "alt-education" facilities, like The Fiddlehead Center for the Arts (which already provides "afterschool" care and summer camps) or the Ferry Beach Ecology School, to flourish, which would mean all sorts of new jobs could be created, and children would be exposed to a plethora of ideas and resources that aren't available to them when they're in school six hours per day five days per week. It would also give them a little more freedom with their time to explore specific areas of interest, and for older students, individual self-study plans could lead to future careers.

And for those parents who do not have any disposable income to devote to paying extra for education, there are all sorts of financial assistance and scholarship programs. But those parents (or the students) would be responsible for finding those funds.

For the parents, it's not as easy as putting Little Johnny on the bus, but it is workable.

There are still other options to consider, as well. Things we could do that would save money on education, and, perhaps, actually improve the education we are offering our students here in the United States without decreasing the school week for all students at all levels.

The first thing we could do is to enforce current compulsory attendance laws, and I don't mean rounding up all of the law-breaking parents, but rather limiting free and open access to public schools to only those students who fall within the age range required by compulsory attendance laws.

In most of the states in the United States of America, Compulsory attendance laws require that children be in enrolled in an educational program from about age seven until the age of seventeen. In Pennsylvania, the age range is eight to seventeen. In Maryland it's five to sixteen. In Oklahoma and Virginia compulsory attendance is from five to eighteen and this idea would not work for them.

The point is that not all parents are required to send their children to school when they turn five. Truancy laws, at least here in Maine, only apply IF the child is over seven, but younger than seventeen, or IF the child who is under seven was previously enrolled in the public school system and has not been subsequently placed on an "equivalent" program or reenrolled (i.e. if the child was enrolled at the local school for kindergarten but not first grade, she will have to be a registered homeschooler OR have been enrolled in a private school).

Since most people don't know this fact, parents enroll their children in Kindergarten at the age of five, and most students stay in school until they are eighteen. What this means is that we are paying for an additional three years of schooling, per student, at an average cost of $10,000 per year.

What I propose is that we don't pay for those extra years with public funds. The savings would be in the millions of dollars. To wit: if we have 100 Kindergarteners and 100 first graders and 100 seventeen year olds, by *not* using public funds for these students, we could save, immediately, $3 mllion per year.

That doesn't mean that none of those kids could go to school. That just means it wouldn't be free. That is, parents who have children younger than seven and older than seventeen would be required to pay tuition if they wanted their children to attend the public school.

There is no evidence to support the idea that children who go to school at a younger age learn more or better. In fact, except in extreme cases, those students who went to preschool will eventually be performing at only the same level as those kids who didn't have formal education until later - and by extreme cases, I mean cases in which the students are developmentally delayed due to physical or mental handicaps or by extreme poverty. In all of those cases, early intervention proved to be paramount to the children's future academic success. But for the average kid from the average household there is no discernable difference in later years between kids who completed preschool and those who entered school when they were older.

There are already educational-assistance programs available for low-income families, and these programs could continue on a proven-need basis. That is, people who meet the financial hardship criteria could enroll their children in a public school program and receive a waiver for tuition fees. All other parents can pay to have their children in school.

Cutting one year of "free" high school would mean that most high school aged children wouldn't graduate. Therefore, it would be necessarily to adjust the graduation requirements. Right now, a good deal of what high school-aged students "study" is simple repetition. In English class, for example, the lessons are all based on a study of literature ... for FOUR years. There is some writing, but there's no instruction in grammar except as an adjunct to teaching writing techniques.

As an aside and as a former teacher, I think it's backwards. In the early grades, students should concentrate on developing a passion for the written word, which means studying literature for the pure beauty and poetry of our language and unfettered writing exercises without the constraints of grammar rules. In fact, I submit that children who are exposed early and often to QUALITY literature learn to spell and use accurate grammar by the simple process of being given examples of good spelling and accurate grammar (Hint: Junie B. Jones and Harry Potter, while fun stories, are not "quality" literature), and only when they've mastered expressing themselves on paper, should their written musings be red-inked and organized into Standard English prose. In short, elementary school teachers should teach reading, middle school teachers should teach literature, and high school teachers should teach grammar. Seems like a more natural progression to me, which is a natural segue to ...

... changing the things students study at the high school level - i.e. graduation credit requirements.

In some schools, there is an opportunity for students to gain some practical, marketable skillset while still in school and have those credits count toward graduation, but for most kids what they learn is basic, "trivia-based" knowledge.

What I mean is that most kids spend a lot of time in school memorizing stuff they promptly forget and rarely need to recall later - just so they can take a test, to pass a class, to earn a credit, to meet a graduation requirement. It's all meaningless, trivial information. As a high school student, I earned credits in all of the standard college-prep courses - very few of which helped me while I was actually in college. For what I do now for a living, only three of my high school classes are even relevant: typing, business math, and Home Ec. We might include anatomy and physiology and/or any of the biology classes I took, but in truth, I remember very little of what I "learned." Most of the knowledge I use day-to-day is stuff I've picked-up since I left school.

What I propose, then, is that for the high school level, instead of having a one-size-fits-all education plan for all students, that students be permitted to choose a career track based on interest AND ability level. Students who wish to go to college would be required to follow a course of study that is similar to what kids do today, i.e. trivia-based, memorization.

For all others, their studies would be more vocational-based, but that doesn't have to be limited to "shop" or "home-ec". A student interested in studying nursing could, conceivably, complete the prerequisites for a LPN certificate while still in high school, which include anatomy, physiology, psychology, and English. More advanced nursing courses could be part of the "early study" program.

The University of Maine system currently offers a program for high school students called "Early Study" or "Aspirations." The program pays for one class per semester for qualified students and offers a second class for half-price. If high school courses were accepted as "prerequisites" for LPN studies, a seventeen year old could "graduate" from high school as a certified LPN.

But it doesn't have to be all "book learning", either. What if, instead of requiring that all high school students spend six hours a day, five days a week taking classes at the local school, we sent some of those kids out into the community in a work-study or apprenticeship program?

We could reduce the size of the student body at the high school by at least 1/3 by allowing fifteen and sixteen year olds the opportunity to participate in an apprenticeship program (how about learning shoe repair?) instead of requiring that they be present at the school sitting through endless, useless classes which prepare them with no marketable job skills at the age of 18 when they are expected to enter the workforce as "educated" individuals. This is not the same as allowing sixteen year olds to get a job. This would be an apprenticeship program that be a collaboration between local business owners interested in teaching their skills and the local schools. Not only would it give students some marketable skils, but it would also build bridges between groups of community members that aren't currently there, and it would make our communities stronger.

In short, by eliminating the three non-compulsory grades, we'd save, immediately, $3 million dollars. By allowing students to earn graduation credits as apprentices or through a college early study program, we could save an additional $270,000, because fewer students who need to occupy physical space in the schools would mean that a smaller space would suffice, and classes could be consolidated into fewer buildings, which would result in saving money on the cost of maintaining facilities and would provide potential revenue for the town by renting out space in the abandoned schools.

If we also implement my original "virtual school" idea, but only on the high school level, we could further reduce the number of buildings we'd need.

It is true there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of how to fix our schools. In truth, what works in Maine won't necessarily work in Texas, and what works in Kentucky could devastate the public school programs in Alabama. The problem is our current system tries to be a one-size-fits-all, and so everything from the school year time line (school begins in the fall, there's a break at Christmas, there's a spring break, school ends in late spring and there's a three-month summer break) to the basic curriculum is homogenized, and our teachers here in Hollis, Maine try to teach our students the same things teachers in San Antonio, Texas are teaching, but guess what? Hollis, Maine is not San Antonio, Texas. Every.single.thing about those two communities is different from the natural environment to the clothes to the food they eat to the way they speak, and finally, given all of those environmental influences, to the way they view and interact with the world. And I've lived in or near BOTH of those communities - so I know of what I speak.

We need to, as communities, take a good hard look at our schools, and we need to make changes that will save us money and prepare our kids for what is shaping up to be a future where the majority of us have even less than we do now - and certainly less than most of our population believes it is entitled to have.

Based on my experiences with the public school system as a parent, as a teacher, and as a student, and my experience as a homeschooler, I have offered two possible solutions.

I'm sure there are other solutions I haven't thought of, and any or all of them could help solve the problems, but none of them will, if we don't act.


  1. My kids go to virtual school full time. We love it. It does take a different kind of management as a parent. It doesn't provide "free" babysitting. But it also doesn't have the waste that traditional school has. I'm always amazed at how much more the kids get done. We have no homework. The kids do the work for the lesson when they are doing the lesson. They have access to the teacher as they are doing the work. They don't waste any time waiting for other kids to be ready, or to change classes. They don't waste time staring out the window wishing they were outside playing in the snow (They just take a break, go out and play for awhile.) I know more about what they are doing and how they are progressing. I talk to their teachers more, talk to my kids more, and am more involved in the learning process. For us it is all the best parts of homeschool with the support of professional teachers when ever we need them. My kids also have more time to be community volunteers, do more in church, scouts, choir, etc. And they get to play, dream, travel, etc. Well run, virtual schools are wonderful. Some traditional schools in our area are changing their snow days to virtual days. If the school is closed because of weather, the classes are done over the internet. It's already happening.

  2. My daughter took some necessary courses while in high school through Florida Virtual School. She was a transfer from out of state and had Latin I and needed Latin II to fulfill a language requirement for a college track. BUT she also took advantage of a concurrent program during her last two years of high school that DID see her through all but a few months' completion of an LPN program. I LOVED the accessibility of the virtual school, and I think the LPN program utilized that type thing for some of the ancillary skills/coursework necessary. It simply makes more sense, however it's worked out, to use the networking of computers the internet to streamline the education process. There are very good teachers employed in virtual schools and I feel my daughter got better one-on-one time and individually-focused input with her virtual school homework than with most of her on-site classes. And she had to work hard, because there are no cheats built in to the virtual format, no freebies and variance from the material. There were plenty of "helps" and ways she could correct her own work until she mastered the subject, which is, after all, the point. Things such as the lack of a commute, the lack of need for a car or gasoline or dress code or many school supplies make virtual school highly adaptable, which I would think would actually potentially allow for higher attendance rates. I have a particular notion that not many people share, but it's that children should learn both a trade and be prepped for college or adult education. And I'm not for truancy laws or enforcing them at all. But for those who are in school, you're not bound to an outside location, and you're not limited to just what one teaching jurisdiction can provide as far as teachers for certain have a larger pool and could choose from a vast array of possible courses. OK, this again has run long... :)

  3. PS I wonder how the numbers would stack up if progressing from one level to the next level (grade level, professional level, certification level, etc)were the prerequisite for the person to get the funding available in a virtual format. I'd love to see universities using mostly virtual formats so location is no issue, and the core coursework fully funded if completed in order to equip students with a basic education that they themselves can springboard from and specialize with their own funds. If guaranteed student loans were nixed in preference for free college core credits for all, I wonder how the numbers would or wouldn't add up? Hmmm.

  4. I think the apprenticeships would be an amazing thing. There are so many kids that want to do something but don't know what that something is by age 16/17 when they are being pointed toward college. This would help that situation alot.

    I don't agree that the charging for certain ages would work well. Just using our schools here...about 86% are poor and would not be able to pay. So by the time they all apply for the assistance (and they all will because it IS free babysitting for them whether its meant to be or not) we are paying the same amount right back out in school welfare. No money saved. And I think if we looked globally that would be the case in a large amount of schools...which is only going to get larger as peak oil problems kill the middle class.

    And I personally love the virtual school idea. Which wouldn't work for this community either. Most would not have the means for the babysitter they would need - which would mean more subsidies and be right back to no cost savings.

    All of your ideas would work great for my family. We are non traditional and our kids have been public schooled, or homeschooled or both. I do what I think is best the each individual child. Unfortunately I have so many close friends that don't have real choices because of lack of MONEY and options. But I also have on of my best but by far poorest friends that lives on about 350 a month and stills manages to homeschool. But she is driven and very smart - which not all my friends are.

    If the government was smart it would start encouraging the middle and upper class to homeschool or virtual school while still taking their taxes like now...which they could still use for the under privileged students. Exactly what we have now but encouraged by the government. But its really not right that my school tax money goes to kids other than mine so its still not a great solution. Maybe if we got a tax break on our yearly taxes for homeschooling AND having the kids pass some kind of basic skills test so we can prove they are actually being schooled.That would cut out those that just want the break and don't parents/school. And when I say break I don't mean getting all our school tax money back - that still goes to the school. I mean it drops us into a lower bracket overall or something. Many parents that could do this that aren't would have a whole new incentive.

  5. I'd really like to see compulsory attendance laws linked to aptitude rather than age. Six years of my education were a total waste to both the taxpayers and to me -- I met the knowledge requirements for graduation and got a college-ready score on my SAT the summer after sixth grade. For the next six grades I sat in classrooms, bored out of my mind. When I wanted to get even a part-time job, I had to get the school's permission. When I wanted to take evening classes at a local community college, I had to get the school's permission (and fight to be allowed to do it, because "we don't usually have girls do that"). Early graduation still technically existed -- they'd just changed the requirements to effectively make it impossible for any student to meet them. When I looked at dropping out at 16 and getting my GED so I could finally move forward with my education, my state had just passed a law that "truancy" allowed the school to have your driver's license taken away so you couldn't get to work, to force you to attend. So I was stuck until I was 18.

    The injustice of that waste really infuriates me -- I strongly support free public education for all, but it makes no sense to me that we have interpreted that idea as a number of years in school rather than a set amount of education. Why say, "free public education for twelve/thirteen years" rather than "free public education to a specified aptitude level in reading/math/science/civics/whatever else"? All that means is that public education money that should go to helping those kids who are behind in reading or math gets spent to keep someone who doesn't need those resources in a classroom until some arbitrary age.

    I disagree with a lot of what you've said about schools in these last few posts, but I absolutely agree we could save a lot of money by reducing the size of the student body without compromising the quality of education. And not all of the changes would need to be new or drastic (or erect even higher barriers to poor kids than the current system does). When my parents were in high school in the late 70s and early 80s, there were still great vocational and apprenticeship programs available to them (many of those were provided or supported by local labor unions). Students were allowed to leave school grounds for lunch, which cut down on the required cafeteria facilities. My mom's PE classes involved things like taking bike rides around town (mine involved taking written tests on the rules of shuffleboard -- I can't imagine why my age group had more weight problems than hers, can you?) And early graduation was still an option for them. Seems like maybe we could bring some of that back.

  6. Since I was one of the people who'd had a knee-jerk reaction to your earlier school posts, I wanted to jump in and say I like the broader brainstorming you're doing here and encouraging others to do. The idea of apprenticeships and real-world voc-ed, rather than pushing all kids toward college whether it's right for them or not, is a great one, and I can definitely see virtual learning working for high school--just more problematic for younger kids. Not so sure about making the earliest grades and senior year optional, but senior year is pretty much a waste both for highly academically motivated kids who've probably finished graduation requirements and non-academically oriented kids who'd probably rather get a job.