A couple of years ago, half listening to the radio on my morning commute, I heard a piece of an interview that’s dogged my thoughts ever since.
A woman, who lived in an impoverished country all her life, started an education revolution in her community so simple and so successful that in a matter of years, the program had spread through the entire country.
See, I wasn’t listening well enough to know the name of the country. What’s stuck with me, is the shoestring budget she started with.
Her primary supplies were pencils — yellow, No. 2 pencils with erasers — and paper.
Scraps of papers, old paper sacks, donated sheets of notebook paper, salvaged reams of copy paper.
And the premise of the school was that people should be taught what they needed to know.
The success of the school involved this great trade-off. If you knew something someone else didn’t know, but wanted to learn, you taught them.
If someone knew something you didn’t know but wanted or needed to learn, they taught you. Curricula ranged from the most basic reading-and-writing to cooking, household finances, birth control, personal health and hygiene, and trade skills.
As each one learned, and taught, a phenomenon flourished.
I’m not naïve enough to suggest pencils and scraps of papers, and simple reciprocal teaching and learning could be a model for other parts of the world — certainly not in locales as sophisticated as ours. But there’s romance to the idea that an education system doesn’t have to be all that complicated.
There’s encouragement to be found in the notion that even at its foundation, basic public education is of great benefit to all.
I think we cheat ourselves when we fail to value public education.
We cheat our children when we change education’s goal from teaching what they need to know — and helping them to learn what they need to understand — to teaching unique specifics determined by one-size-fits-all (at varying grade levels) standardized tests.
Education should prepare students for their lives ahead, and encourage them to be lifelong learners.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
In the last few years, state spending on education decreased from 67 percent to 38 percent — a 43-percent decrease.
Just during Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s tenure of the last three and a half years, spending per student has decreased $600 a year. Operating budgets of most school districts in the state of Texas run the dollar-for dollar -equivalent of what they were in 1995.
Those figures alone are sobering, especially with changing demographics, family structure and social/cultural developments.
But here’s the staggering number. In the same time frame, spending has increased to $13.4 billion to cover the cost of developing, administering and grading our standardized tests.
The tests are random — riddled with “gotcha” or trick questions, and more of a high-stake trivia exam than a test of knowledge, and they tend to be discriminate against students in lower socioeconomic environments.
Teachers must tailor their lessons to prepare students for the test, rather than what would seem a more logical approach, testing students on what they’re prepared for.
Here’s the deal.
Standardized tests aren’t the teachers’ idea, and the tests aren’t the brainchild of school administrators.
Not at all. The tests are absolutely, 100 percent, the push of politicians, who are directed by the state constitution to provide public education for all children.
So what if?
What if the politicians focused efforts on changing the culture in Texas, particularly in education, to include and educate every student?
What if the goal were to design policies that foster an inclusive educational environment, where every child is afforded an opportunity to learn with his or her peers?
What if instead of division, districts were given more opportunities and support for partnering with businesses, the community, and faith-based organizations, to meet the needs of every child.
It’s springtime here in Texas. Last week, we tested our children on things they will probably never need to know, and weren’t very excited to try and find out.
I think it’s time for the pendulum to swing.
More teach. Less test.
More learn. Less stress.
More of the practical. Less of the guess.
I’m far from having it all figured out, but I still say, you can get a lot done with yellow No. 2 pencils and paper scraps.
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