A reader recently made several good points regarding education in the blog comment section. She was concerned that students can not make change, speak correctly, or perform simple multiplication. I have heard this concern before, and it has been a real sore spot for me for a long time.
I have repeatedly stressed that teaching the basics and insisting on mastery of the basics--reading, writing, and arithmetic (OK, "math")-- is the essential foundation of education for all students.
I decided to post my reply to the reader as a regular blog entry--with a few revisions and additional comments...
It does take a lot of money to raise and to educate a child. Please let me share some information with you. By law, funding for education in Hamblen County can not go down--unless there is a substantial drop in enrollment or an economic crisis of some sort. Every year, funding for education from the state and from the local government has gone up. But has education really improved?
You point out that young people graduate from high school and cannot speak correctly, make change, and do basic multiplication. Will different textbooks correct these problems? No. Will new weight rooms correct these problems? No.
What can we do to address the problems about which you are concerned? Our primary focus should be on teaching the basics because the problems you have pointed out are examples of a failure to provide an educational foundation for basic success in life.
Unfortunately, it's not as easy as simply throwing more money into the "education" pot in order to get the better educational outcomes that we all seek--whether the outcome is as basic as being able to make change and speak correctly (as you have pointed out) or whether the outcome is as complex as being able to handle algebraic equations and analyze Shakespearean drama.
It will take a major revamping and overhaul of the educational system--both in Hamblen County and across the state--if we are to see real improvement and if we are to be assured that a foundation for success has been laid for every child. Does this require more money? Not necessarily. Does it require better management of existing funds? Absolutely.
Simply rearranging class schedules to provide significantly more instructional time for reading, writing, and arithmetic (aka "math") in grades 1-3 would bring about improvements in those basic skills that are the foundation for all advanced skills in later grades. Mastery of these skills is essential.
After school tutoring by teachers, volunteer tutors from Walters State and the community, and peer tutoring are all part of the solution--and some of this is being done now.
I believe that merit pay for teachers and a readjustment of pay scales with increased pay for those certified in areas of greater need (advanced math courses, physics, science) are also a part of the solution. (But this is one of those taboo areas that one doesn't talk about in polite company)
I believe that teacher tenure will soon be a relic of the past. I have mixed feelings about this. Tenure is good where it protects a good teacher from a politically-motivated firing; on the flip side, tenure is often perceived by the public as providing lifetime job security to marginal and even poor teachers.
I believe that we need to take another look at block scheduling that was adopted at our local high schools some 10 years ago. It may be an idea that sounded good in theory but that is not academically sound in practice. Some adjustments have already been made in math and other courses to provide year-round instead of semester instruction, but the entire block scheduling concept should be reviewed completely. I understand that a number of schools are starting to back away from the 90- minute classes that are the basis of block scheduling and are going back to the more traditional year-round 55-60 minute classes.
A number of different viewpoints and ideas for improving education should be considered--not just the same old "more money" requests that have failed in the past. It's time for new and creative ideas. And if something doesn't work, ditch it. Don't just keep throwing more money at it. By the same token, if a particular program does work, keep it and work even harder at it.
Many individuals, groups, and organizations in Hamblen County care about education. As for me, I have three children. As a parent, I was closely involved in my children's education every step of the way. All three graduated from the University of Tennessee.
As a teacher for 11 years, I was involved in the education of hundreds of young people. I enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm of my students, and I worked hard every day to help them both academically and socially.
As a supporter of athletics, I coached middle school basketball. I was a member and officer in several booster clubs at West High. I was president of the all-sports athletic booster club at West High. But let me add this...while sports programs are wonderful, there is nothing more important than academics.
I was an early and vocal supporter of improved educational facilities. Back in 1997--many years before you arrived in Morristown-- I was one of those who was actively involved in getting a comprehensive school building program off the ground.
I was teaching English at the old West View Middle School on Economy Road at that time. [It has since been remodeled and is now called Manley Elementary.] The old West View Middle was one of the last of the "open school" designs in Hamblen County. You can imagine how difficult it was to teach English to a class of 25-30 students while another English teacher tried to teach a classroom of 25-30 students right next to you. With NO walls to separate the two classrooms.
I wrote letters to parents about our need for walls between the classrooms and other improvements. I helped organize meetings at West View involving parents, teachers, and school board members. I attended joint school board-county commission meetings to encourage the adoption of a comprehensive school building program.
Many people, and I was one of them, were ecstatic when the building program was adopted and funded by county commission in 1998. Unfortunately, the school board then took the $32 million that was provided for school improvements across the county and drafted questionable contracts that resulted in conflicts of interest, numerous (22 or more) single bids being received and awarded, and cost overruns that resulted in the elimination of many of the planned improvements.
Waste of taxpayer money always concerns me. Over 1-1/2 years after the first contracts were signed, I realized what was going on in the school building program--that they were paying people to manage and supervise themselves while cost overruns mounted up and classrooms were eliminated. The waste was very disheartening for those of us who watched and saw what was happening.
I think it is important to try to correct situations instead of just wringing our hands. No one would do anything about this waste on the local level--except for lip service here and there.
Other concerned citizens and I spoke to the State Comptroller in Nashville in August 2001 about the supposed "competitive" bidding and the reality of the conflicts of interest that the school board denied all along. As a result of our efforts, state law was amended unanimously in 2002 to prohibit the local school board and others across the state from handling school construction management in the way that the Hamblen County School Board did from 1999-2002.
All this is to say that I value education as much and perhaps more than many people in Hamblen County. I have been involved in supporting better facilities, and I have supported athletics as well. The touchstone, however, is always academics.
I know that education is the key to personal success--of course, a little luck along the way can be very helpful, too. My parents stressed the importance of education to me, and I have stressed the importance of education to my own children.
I wish that money were somehow a "silver bullet" that would solve the problems within the educational bureaucracy. But it isn't. We have problems that money can't begin to address. We have problems that go deeper than financial shortages.
To solve the problems you have mentioned--time, time, and more time devoted to the basics is needed. And the same is true of the problem of not having a highly educated workforce. We have many excellent teachers, and we offer a varied and challenging curriculum for those who choose to avail themselves of it.
It is my opinion that an excellent education is offered to students in Hamblen County, but unfortunately some students and parents do not see the long-term value in education. Therefore, some parents do not push, encourage, and help their children, and it is also true that some students do not push themselves to get as much from the educational offerings that are laid before them, free for the taking.
You can lead a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink.
Once we are able to get support from all parents and once we are able to help students see the value of their K-12 education, then we will have a major part of the answer to our educational dilemma.
Thank you for your comments. You make many excellent points. We obviously agree on the importance of education, and I'm sure we both hope that more parents and students will come to realize the critical importance of education. Students should take advantage of the wonderful and challenging opportunities for learning that exist within our local school system.