- Ada, Oklahoma

January 29, 2014

What do we really want from our schools?

Bill Nelson Guest Writer

Ada — The battle rages with the outcome still in doubt. Now is the time for Oklahoma parents to join the fray and decide what they really want from their schools. We are now engaged in a contest to define the relative value of our children and the role public education should play in their lives. Much is at stake. 

The current educational “reform” movement seeks to define students by their value as production units in our economy.  Kids are labeled “proficient” or “unsatisfactory” based on test results? No longer are kids valuable just for being. They must be profit producing for the business community. School time spent on developing the whole child or providing opportunities for exploration is deemed inefficient. The focus must be on test preparation and teaching kids to work under pressure. Rather than urging young people to choose something they would like to do for a living and helping them to be good at it, we are now proclaiming that unless they leave high school college bound, or at least headed for specialized training, they and their schools have failed. A loudly proclaimed myth declares that uncaring and unmotivated teachers are failing to help our young people reach their potential. Hogwash!

I have worked in Oklahoma schools for nearly forty years and can name on less than two hands the number of teachers I have known who did not go above and beyond their job descriptions to help kids reach their dreams. The best teachers in the world cannot make kids choose to learn but most I have known have gone to extraordinary lengths to encourage their students to strive and achieve.

Where did it all go south? When did we lose sight of the fact that kids grow up at different rates; that some do not figure out what they want to do until well after their high school years? How can we not know that legislating excellence never guarantees it? Have we forgotten our own childhood? Some of us took longer to learn. Some of us learned but chose not to apply our knowledge. Some of us chose to ignore what we knew was good advice and took our chances (i.e. anyone who started smoking within the last 30 years or those of us who continue to overeat). Children, like the adults around them, are not all the same.

Schools can and should work diligently to steer students toward better decisions. Teachers can indeed be influential figures in the lives of young people who often need role models. Students must be held accountable and taught that they should consider the impact of their actions on those around them. Some information is important and should be learned by as many as possible. The idea, however, that all kids will or should turn out the same is both misguided and disingenuous. Why should every college bound student be proficient in Algebra 3? How many will actually choose majors or work in professions that utilize higher level mathematics? How much is a college degree worth if everyone has one? How many engineers can America actually employ? The scary thing is that many of those espousing the one-size-fits-all idea seem to truly believe it. Despite the fact that just looking around should tell them that people are unique and that they respond differently to the same stimuli, they have convinced themselves that they can dictate human nature and make us all fit their mold.

The time has come for Oklahoma parents to choose who they want to educate their kids and how they want those children defined. While political demagoguery fills the news, Oklahoma teachers continue striving to provide students learning opportunities and useful information like they always have despite ever increasing criticism and bureaucratic and legalistic hurdles. Schools can provide opportunities for students to grow and learn. Teachers will encourage young people to thoughtfully decide who they will become and what role they will play in our society if political headline seekers and social engineers will get out of the way. Do we really want our kids raised by those in Washington D.C. or at the Capitol building in Oklahoma City or should they be taught through daily conversations between students, parents and teachers talking eye to eye and face to face?

(Bill Nelson is assistant superintendent of Byng Schools.)