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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Let's keep the Public in Public Education

The term “public” must remain in the American tradition of public education. This nation has expected and has enjoyed a successful tradition in public education. Yet, we must always strive to improve the state of public education and to ameliorate any of its shortcomings.

We are a diverse nation, a diverse county, and a diverse region. There should not be any standard that “one size fits all”. There is strength in diversity. With diversity, comes the need for adaptation and change. A wise person once said that the only institution unresponsive to change is the cemetery.

The question arises as to what change should occur and by what process it should be attempted. Furthermore, as change occurs, or is proposed, one must have a clear understanding of where we are and where we want to be. We all reminisce about the “good ole days” but from what vantage point? Too often educational change is governed by short term fixes and political convenience without regard to the authentic facts. For example, we read where the drop out rate in many of our schools is ten or twenty percent. Anything above zero percent is too high; however, the average dropout rate for the last century was over fifty percent. More children are currently enrolled with greater diversities than ever before. Historically, if the child never came to school or never attended above the sixth grade, he or she was never considered a drop out.

Our graduation rates are compared to other developed nations without much consideration to who can go to high school. Some countries require admission tests to enter high school. We allow anyone, and rightfully so, who can get in the door to attend and have the opportunity to achieve a diploma. Currently, Alabama has some of the highest standards for graduation in the country.

Some say that college admission scores and student achievement scores have fallen. Yet little is said about the larger percentage of students with greater demographic multiplicity taking these examinations. Research has shown that test scores have not decreased when corrected for demographic variance. Many of our disabled students did not have the opportunity to attend school as they do now. Under No Child Left Behind, they will be measured by the same standard as all other students. No longer do schools have the ability to determine who takes the test. All must be accounted for and scores properly reported.

An ad appeared in a London newspaper in 1900 for an expedition to the Antarctic. It read,” men wanted for hazardous journey, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, and safe return doubtful”. More than enough people signed on for the adventure. We are having greater difficulty in obtaining a sufficient number of highly qualified teachers for our classrooms. Seasoned teachers and administrators know that teaching is not an easy job but are dedicated to providing the best for our children. Yet, legal quagmires often prevent us from getting the most competent candidates and seriously limit our ability to remove those that are less qualified. Our current tenure laws do not allow boards of education to make the best decisions for the children they are charged to educate. Yes, there does need to be some oversight on major decisions but not to the extreme of taking months to handle simple disciplinary issues or weeks to affect the transfer of a staff member to better serve our students and to correct for demographic variations in school populations.

This region is ripe for progress. Being located between Birmingham, Atlanta, Huntsville, and Montgomery, we are at a geographic advantage. Additionally, we have some nationally and historically recognized institutions in this area such as AIDB and Talladega College. A fine Community College system including CACC and the easy access to major four year institutions allow for the efficient training of our population. The presence of Honda and the Talladega Superspeedway provide additional economic advantages plus name recognition for the Talladega region. Railroads and water resources enhance our situation.

The remaining job is to structure our public educational institutions to continue to meet the needs of the future. A famous hockey player was asked how he managed to do so well at his game. His response was, “most players skate to where the puck is, I skate to where it is going to be.

Working together, we can continue to mold public educational institutions as we “skate to where the puck is going to be”.

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