By Darrel Deide
Chairman, Idahoans for Choice in Education
This year marks my 50th year in Idaho education as a teacher, counselor, administrator, legislator and advocate. I taught science in the 1959-1960 school year, the year that the microchip was invented, the year that the first rocket escaped Earth’s gravity and the year the Mercury program launched Sam the Monkey into outer space.
The kids in my class, and their teacher, were filled with wonderment and excitement for the untold potential that the future held. We could not possibly imagine how the next 50 years would unfold and give us innovations like laptop computers, cell phones and high speed Internet. Nor could we imagine how such innovations would change the way students learn. Our classrooms are better equipped than ever before. Class sizes are significantly smaller. Our teachers are much better compensated and certification standards for teachers are higher than ever before.
With all of these positive attributes accruing to elementary and secondary schools you would have to think that our education system has also improved. Not necessarily. In fact, those students who sat in my classroom in 1959 had a better chance of graduating than the kids who sit in our state-of-the-art classrooms in 2009. How can this be true despite so many marked improvements in the general condition of our public schools?
Most schools today are fraught with poor discipline. When I entered my science classroom for the first time students faced real consequences for misbehavior, real consequences for failure, and our textbooks were old but accurate and challenging. We grouped students based on their ability, allowing top-performing students to continue to excel. Slower students were grouped with similarly situated students and given an opportunity to catch up. We didn’t insist that the best kids be held back by their classmates who are struggling. We found ways to motivate students and push them all to a higher level. To a large degree, the students of 1959 were getting a first class education, and they could compete with kids anywhere – and they did.
Today, school leaders are more interested in protecting the student’s self esteem than in academic achievement. Liberalism run amuck means kids who should repeat a grade are promoted to the next grade level just so that they can remain with their friends. Schoolteachers and administrators accept the use of dumb-downed and propagandized textbooks, because such books mean students don’t have to work as hard to make it through the subject matter.
Our schools are drifting away from the basics in favor of new educational “fads,” and that has led to the use of unproven methods, questionable textbooks and a breakdown of what schools are supposed to be about.
So now, we have terrible graduation rates. We have high school students who can’t read, and we have graduates who need remedial help in college because their schools failed to prepare them academically before they received their diplomas.
Even most of our best and brightest students are surpassed by students from other countries.
If we don’t turn this “ship of education” around, the result will be a standard of living for our kids, which, for the first time in our history, will be lower than that of the preceding generation.
We can do better, but first, we need to recognize that we can’t keep doing the same thing and somehow expect better results. Secondly, there is no relationship between amount of money spent per child and education quality. Throwing more and more money into a broken system will not magically make the system better. Better policies make better schools. And for better polices to be adopted, we turn to the Legislature, the state Department of Education, and the State Board of Education. It’s up to leaders of those organizations to recognize and accept that change in the system is mandatory.
They must recognize and support the rapidly emerging array of new education delivery systems such as home schools, virtual schools, charter schools, hybrid schools, schools within schools and private and parochial school options. They must enact rules and laws that enhance these innovations and alternatives rather than stifle them.
In 1959, the year I became a teacher, President Truman told Newsweek Magazine, “In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” Today, we crave the leadership that will put our education system back on track. The question is, will these leaders deliver?