- - Sunday, May 17, 2015

The entire nation has watched with awe, anger, and angst as protests and riots have erupted in city after city over the treatment of black youths by police officers. There appear to be two levels of concern: The interaction between police and black youths, particularly in the inner cities, and the underlying anger which is finding expression in violence and destruction of property.

The underlying issues depend for their solutions on a wider set of considerations. The most obvious of these considerations is the high levels of unemployment in the inner cities. This is caused by the lack of marketable skills among much of that population. Which in turn leads to a very basic issue: The lack of viable, productive educational opportunities in these neighborhoods.

I have some very personal experience with this problem. As dean of an “open enrollment” college, I personally saw the tragedy of full grown young men and women who had been allowed to graduate from high school and enter college even though they could not read and write standard English. I raised millions of dollars to remediate their deficiencies, but in most cases it was too late, their pride and self-esteem were too damaged. An absolute horror story!

The only way to address this problem is to introduce competition into schooling. No one knows what the “best way” to motivate these students — or even if there is ONE “best way”. There are many experiments going on today, some with outstanding success. If parents can choose their children’s school, they will invariably flock to the most successful, wherever that may be. This is the basis of the so-called “voucher plans”. The government subsidizes the student instead of the school. And therein lies the path to solving the underachieving educational systems of the inner cities in America.

A very interesting coalition of inner-city parents and conservative politicians is gathering momentum in support of school vouchers. Traditional public school advocates, led by teachers unions and academics, have fought tooth and nail against this concept, and have even turned it back in some instances, such as the District of Columbia, where pilot programs have been initiated. No one is more aware of the need for productive and effective education than inner-city parents, who have proven it time and again, wherever private and non-traditional schools have been made available to them.

Inner-city schools are not suffering from a lack of funds. With the combination of federal, state and local funding, many of them spend more per pupil than suburban schools. Yet, by any measure, inner-city public schools are failing on a monumental scale, condemning whole generations to lives of poverty and welfare. The simple fact is that the public school system has failed these children. It has failed, not for lack of money, good intentions, or teacher dedication. It has failed because it is a relic of a bygone era.

Traditional education theory follows the logic of the “machine age”, the assembly line of mass production. The finished product is the educated child at the end of the production line. The child starts the process with no knowledge or skills. The child then stops a year at each station so that some new units of learning can be added until there is a graduation marking the end of the production line — whether from elementary school, high school, college, or graduate school. Along the way, learning got divided up into grades, subjects, credits, hours and other rather bizarre segments.

In reality, learning is personal and dynamic, moving from one thing to another. It is not now and never has been divisible into some number of accounting-like units. The success of the traditional school has always required an acceptance by students of the legitimacy of the machine age mentality. In other words, students had to believe implicitly that adding a little piece of knowledge or skill here and there will eventually result in a useful product.

They had to respect the authority of the teacher and the integrity of the system to the extent that they suspended belief in their own opinions and accepted what they were being taught. The reward for compliance is that students will eventually be rewarded with having a marketable skill — even if the graduates of his or her specialty might not fit neatly into the world of work. Employers have been willing to trust the school’s certification that this student has the requisite background and capacity to learn whatever was needed for the job.

Now enter a whole new kind of student. This student lacks the underlying faith in the school’s system, including and especially in the teacher. This student is inclined to believe on the contrary that the whole social system including the school is irrelevant if not hostile to his daily life. This student is not prepared to accept years of seemingly meaningless ideas and skills with the hope of someday graduating with a marketable skill. This student sticks with the school until old enough to avoid truancy and then bows out. In the meantime, such a student is inclined to dismiss the years of exposure to the usual academic requirements as necessary jail time. This is why so many of our students are functionally illiterate even though they have years of schooling.

In my own opinion and experience, the overriding goal of any learning process should be results. Human beings are born curious. Put a baby on a rug and the first thing baby does is look around and touch things and explore. We never lose this curiosity, but sometimes it can be beaten down. Learning is not a sometime thing. We are constantly learning. The educator’s role is to help us learn things that will be useful — economically and personally. The foundation of all such learning is interest, the focusing of curiosity. With proper resources and guidance, I believe that almost any interest can lead to useful results, whether skills or knowledge, or more likely both.

For example, many boys like cars. If any boy is sufficiently curious, his exploration of cars can lead to a multitude of skills and useful knowledge. The first skill he needs is reading. Not just any reading, but technical reading so he can understand what the manuals and specifications are talking about. He can move into design, or electronics, or mechanical engineering, or marketing, or merchandising, wherever his interests take him. Will he be motivated to learn how to read, how to do mathematics, geometry, or drafting? If he wants to follow his interest, he has to. Now he understands for himself why he has to learn these skills. This may be a passing interest, but he has already learned a lot.

There is also the joy of KNOWING. How many times do we look at something and wonder what it’s made of, or what it is for, or what it can do? But then we come across something we DO know. That is fun.

So how can schooling be organized to support this view of learning? Happily, a great deal of work has already been done on this topic under the title, “Individual Learning Plans”. (For more information, see the Department of Education’s database, ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) under this title) The premise of the ILP is that each student is an individual and his or her education should be tailored to that student’s particular needs and goals. The idea first gained recognition as a court-ordered requirement for special needs children. Early on, it was also adopted by many home schoolers. By now, however, it is a recognized educational methodology, which has been adopted by various states as a standard, (e.g. Kentucky).

This standard holds the promise of solving the inner city schooling deficit. It is called generically “learner-centered education”, and is being applied increasingly to other populations, including colleges and adult learning. The process begins with an annual plan developed by the student under the guidance of a teacher or academic advisor. Currently, most ILP settings are still wed to the classroom-centered structure. Nevertheless, an ILP system fosters an expanded variety of teaching methods, course offerings and tutorials, with corresponding requirements for different teacher preparation.

My own view is that technology can provide the answers to many of the resource scarcities. The Internet now provides everyone with their own Library of Congress, plus nearly limitless access to videos, artifacts and all modalities of the arts. It is the greatest educational tool in the history of mankind. The ultimate application of ILP is a carrel for every student, a private booth, equipped with a desk, a chair, bookshelves, a locker, and, in my construct, an internet accessible computer. This is the student’s educational “home”, similar to the graduate student’s carrel in a university library. Reliance on a carrel-centered system instead of or in addition to a “homeroom” would also differentiate teachers’ roles, some as Oxford-style tutors and lecturers for specialties, with others functioning as academic counselors — actually bringing university roles down to K-12.

There are many, many aspects to these suggestions, too numerous to be discussed here. However, there is one topic which cannot be overlooked. That is funding. Many years ago, I led a study for the NEA Foundation on the topic, “Do Computers Help Teachers Teach?” (National Education Association, 1987, Amazon) At that time the first objection to the topic of computers in schools given by every administrator and School Board member interviewed was, “We can’t afford technology”. In spite of the astonishing reduction in the prices of technology since then, we still hear the same refrain. To which the reply is “Nonsense!”

There is no lack of funds in education. There is a lack of priorities. This is the same problem that is encountered everywhere else in education. Labor costs consume most of the budget. In order to introduce new priorities, labor costs must be reduced. Given the political clout of teachers unions and associations, any dramatic reform of budget priorities is resisted with great force.

Enter again the need for a voucher system. We need to fund the student rather than the institution. This innovation brings with it competition for the best programs, the best schools, the best educational systems. It also brings capital investment from the business community.

If Americans want truly 21st century educational opportunities, education for the information age rather than the machine age, whether technology supported ILP’s or other innovations, we must authorize school vouchers.

Soon.

This generation of inner-city youths can’t wait.


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