New superintendent brings opportunity for change

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I’m such a cynic sometimes. The superintendent of our school district is retiring, and local education officials are making a big deal about considering public input in the naming of her replacement. I hate myself for it, but I find myself doubting their sincerity.

For one thing, they’re using a prestigious firm to conduct a nationwide search, which means they’re already pretty sure of what they want, and for another, they’re convening a lot of focus groups, which can usually be counted on to say what conveners want to hear. They’re also throwing the word “transparency” around like it’s the attack dog that will grab any stray criticism by the throat and fling it to the ground.

It seems as if they know they’re supposed to be doing this in the public’s interest, but their hearts really aren’t in it.

But I will take them at their word and offer my input. I don’t have children in the district but I am one of its taxpayers, so I have a stake in the process. Alas, that makes me a “stakeholder,” which is another weasel word officials use to gull citizens into thinking they have more say than they actually do. (And if they ever start saying “synergy,” there should be an immediate investigation, because that’s an obvious signal somebody is up to no good.)

So, for what it’s worth, our new school superintendent should:

BE LOCAL. Enough damage has been done by the roving band of professional educators who travel the country armed with the latest fads in pedagogy but have no knowledge of the special challenges and opportunities that make up local conditions. If the school board doesn’t already have a good crop of candidates from which to select a good candidate, it’s doing something wrong.

PUT STUDENTS FIRST. That means giving them the best education possible, wherever it is being offered. Instead of fighting initiatives such as vouchers and charter schools, the top public education official should welcome them as competitors that spur excellence. Local school districts are allowed to start their own charters, and they should be the concept’s biggest advocates. It’s a shame they aren’t.

STRESS BASICS. The knowledge base is expanding exponentially. The more there is to wade through, the more important it is for students to have a strong baseline that will help them comprehend it all. Reading, writing and arithmetic aren’t throwbacks to a simpler age. They’re needed now more than ever.

TEACH CITIZENSHIP. Schools are ill-equipped to be a student’s sole gateway to the workplace, and they should not in any case be pushing teens and even pre-teens to quickly decide their lifelong career paths. But they are uniquely qualified to help our young people appreciate the Western values and American traditions they have inherited and should nurture and pass along.

STRIVE FOR EXCELLENCE. Stop holding back the best and brightest students — set high standards, in fact, and hold all students accountable for trying to meet them. Not only disdain the trend of abandoning the naming of valedictorians and salutatorians, dedicate one of those charter schools to honors classes that it becomes a point of pride to qualify for.

LET TEACHERS TEACH. Start taking away responsibilities that unnecessarily burden them. Cut back on the bloated administration to put more bodies in the classroom and pay them better. Stand up for them against half-baked schemes from legislative busybodies.

DEEMPHASIZE DIVERSITY. Nothing wrong with valuing our differences, but we’ve elevated our commitment to them to a pathological level. We should be paying much more attention to the things we have in common, and if schools don’t do it, it won’t get done.

Looking back on this partial list — shortened for the sake of brevity — it occurs to me why it won’t be taken seriously. It’s not just a wish list, it’s actually a catalog of the things that are wrong with public education today.

That means it can’t be achieved by one person, even if he or she were inclined to tackle it. The problem is that we all have a stake in education, but we no longer agree, if we ever did, on what its goals should be, let alone how to achieve them. We need to really think about that.

I have one suggestion on where we might start. Indiana schools have put so much emphasis on standardized tests that they’re becoming all teachers can focus on and all students can worry about. They have started overshadowing everything else in public education.

But Indiana University has just announced it will give potential enrollees the option of not including standardized test scores on their college applications.

There is one huge disconnect there. Maybe our new superintendent can figure out why.

 

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.

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