Overland transportation needs were satisfied for centuries by horse-drawn vehicles. Dirt roads were entirely adequate thoroughfares when dealing with such limited speed. The invention of the automobile, however, changed things. With increased speed arrives the need for smoother, more durable surfaces. Societies have responded by dedicating resources to construct a network of paved roads, highways and interstates on which commerce and tourism flourish. Public monies were invested wisely in a transportation infrastructure to enhance the common good. The dividends of this investment have been distributed as broad access to goods and services on a scale that would have defied the imagination of our ancestors.
So, in this the age of the information superhighway, why do our schools still operate on a model that basically predates paved roads? For all those concerned about the intellectual development of children, this situation should be alarming.
Unfortunately, our system of delivering was never designed to furnish optimal results for all children. At the beginning of the industrial age, a 25 percent dropout rate was the norm and only elite students continued studies after high school. A century ago, marginal literacy and numeracy were the largely achievable goals of public education for citizens. However, the number of skills and the amount of knowledge needed to compete in today’s world is expanding at an exponential rate as the compendium of human knowledge continues to double every seven years
Moreover, in recent years, we have elevated the expectation of optimal academic results to include every child with no significant changes in the school day, the school year or the scholastic career.
Our protocols for delivering instruction are dated and in need of modernization. Our calendar is agrarian, and our school day is modeled after a post-industrial-age assembly line that offers little in the way of meeting the needs of every individual learner, unless, of course, the teacher devotes every waking hour to planning instruction and furnishing meaningful feedback on student work. It must be duly noted that any relationship between Management and Labor that remains totally dependent upon the altruism of the work force will fail, in the long run, to meet its objectives.
Ironically, even the captains of the auto industry learned that empowering workers to control the speed of the assembly line reduced mistakes and improved the product, however, the assembly line for teachers continues to accelerate. The typical highly effective teacher dedicates nearly 60 hours weekly to improving the lives of children. Far too much of that workweek is spent on tasks that have little to do with what should be a teacher’s primary function: the preparation and organization of effective instruction.
School funding as a percentage of the gross national product has remained virtually unchanged in this nation since World War II, hovering around 6.3 percent of Gross National Product, and our own per-pupil spending remains a fraction of those jurisdictions with whom we compete for highly qualified instructors. Prince George’s County’s contribution to the school budget has dropped to 39% percent of the Board of Education budget from 49 percent a couple decades ago. Disparities in funding between affluent and economically challenged communities perpetuate both the divide in academic performance and the stratification of our society. While we have attempted to maintain competitive salaries in Prince George’s County, we have done so at the expense of a reasonable staffing ratio.
Our community can and must improve its support for the public schools. We must invest in our schools with the same goal fulfilled by our investment in highways: to meet the needs of the times. We simply must smooth the way for all children as active participants in the age of information. The yields will be immeasurable, but real. The only real question is whether we are ready to make the investment of paving over the cart path that leads to social justice for children.
[This Commentary first appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on January 12, 2012]