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August 24, 2010 > Editorial: School daze

Editorial: School daze

"Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer" memorialized by Nat King Cole are almost gone; preparation for fall school days is upon us. Parents are performing their annual ritual of tightening financial belts, buying clothes and school supplies. Students are either eagerly anticipating or dreading waiting classrooms. At the center of this activity is the public education system - administrators, teachers, support services - tasked with nurturing student mental and physical health. Private schools have the same mission with similar difficulties though a bit more freedom to develop alternative organizational structures.

Faced with uncertain finances and a diverse population, many public schools have become hollow shells of promises made in earlier decades. A well-rounded education including art appreciation, music, communication skills, sports and a variety of "optional" instruction has succumbed to a core curriculum of "reading, writing and arithmetic." These skills are indeed essential to a basic understanding of the world around us, but without an appreciation of the total human experience, they can create a sterile environment. Some communities have responded to the challenge by raising funds to continue a more extensive program of study while others cannot afford to do so.

At the very heart of education is personal interaction between student and teacher. Teachers can be found everywhere - schools, home, work, playmates, acquaintances, relatives, online, etc. It is here that nuances and unique adjustments necessary for optimum learning are found. There is no magic system, but there is magic when individuals associate and communicate effectively, often in classrooms. Numbers turn into a language of order, science offers methods to investigate our surroundings while effectively used words express thoughts, feelings and instruction. Critical levels of understanding are explored through a variety of medium including what many consider optional studies - art, music, sports, etc. All disciplines are essential to introduce productive members to our society.

Watching young children enter elementary school is a delight. Opportunity and exuberance is normal as students show interest in just about everything around them. Undeterred by future "can't, won't, shouldn't" warnings, they look forward to their time at school, its challenges and rewards. Something untoward happens to some of these kids during this process; it changes their perspective and what was once positive and rewarding becomes dark, ominous and sinister. It is at this level that the stage is set for future growth or disaster. It also here, at the core, that society needs to readjust its focus.

Rewards in our educational system must recognize the relationship between early education and success. Some students are well supported at home and have natural advantages that lead to healthy lives, while others must rely on an organized support network through schools and extracurricular activities. Pre-schools, elementary and secondary schools are the foundation for later success. Concentrating on quality teaching personnel and administrative support in these facilities is critical. While colleges and universities often recognize special talents of professors, offering decent salaries, benefits and sabbatical leaves to reward and refresh their knowledge, primary and secondary education teachers are often regarded as a second tier. In fact, the opposite is true. The essential first and primary tier of public education is at its beginning. Without a solid foundation, developing a practical and sturdy framework for adulthood is a herculean task.

As a community, we should demand much more of primary and secondary education, rewarding the best in commensurate fashion. Overt and subliminal messages sent to young students are important; the value and expectations placed on these teachers is a comprehensive societal declaration. The title "professor" and accolades that attend that title should apply to all teachers, whether in primary, secondary or post-graduate education.

Protection through tenure must be examined since it is a double-edged proposition that can retard rather than strengthen the educational system. The politics of educating impressionable minds is risky when teachers can be summarily fired, but protection of weakness and inefficiency is also intolerable. Careful assessment of the skills and energy of those entrusted with young minds is vital - not simply through a set of test results, rather a combination of criteria which includes such results.

The key component to learning is student-teacher interaction. Preservation of positive student attitudes is dependent on teacher attitudes. Pride in the profession results from respect by society in general. The current financial state of schools demands a detailed review of how we, as a society, value education and although painful, provide opportunities to modify and restructure its framework.

As the financial state of our economy improves - and it will - how will we put new resources to work? These fundamental questions should be addressed now rather than continuing to follow the same vocational paths used for prior generations. Teacher compensation discussions can address a reward system that recognizes outstanding instructors and removes incompetence. Sabbatical leaves can be offered for primary and secondary grade "professors" who will be asked to work in the business world learning more about the environment beyond school fences.

School boards may want to take public meeting time to address a global view of their educational system rather than spending an inordinate amount of time discussing and re-discussing administrative issues. While administrative decisions are important and should be open to a transparent process, boards need to use valuable public time to set direction and goals. A well-planned agenda should focus on efficient and effective use of time. The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are waning; it is time to energize our schools.

Welcome back educators!

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