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Monday, April 20, 2009

Getting What We Pay For: Failing More of Our Kids

A reader asks my opinion on the "bleak" future of High Plains Tech, the current incarnation of AIM High. Superintendent Vince Schaefer told the Madison Central school board last week that the state and federal funds are drying up, and we apparently can't sustain the program on our own, which means we'll be sending a number of cranky 17- and 18-year-olds back to the regular high school classroom to serve out their legislatively imposed sentence (which Russell Olson voted for, by the way).

I feel some ambivalence here. On the one hand, some kids just don't succeed in the traditional high school setting. Beating them over the head with the same approach every day is mostly futile. But if South Dakota doesn't have a constitutional obligation to maintain separate schools for Hutterites, what obligation does it have to maintain separate schools for other students are unable or unwilling to make progress in the standard educational setting offered by the taxpayers?

In response to a question about AIM High during last year's school board campaign, I said that we have to be open to all possibilities and look for the best solution for all students. The best thing for all students would be to provide one-on-one instruction in a comfortable, free-flowing setting, preferably with lots of windows, where each student has significant freedom to pursue her own interests at her own pace. Alas, we don't have the resources to ten-tuple our teaching staff (that's a conservative estimate) and demolish the current high school building to make room for building an open, modern learning center from scratch. We could disband the K-12 public education system, use the state education budget to build a statewide wireless Internet hotspot based on the existing K-12 network, and provide curriculum and tutors online to support statewide home school... but with both parents working in 70-plus percent of South Dakota households, we don't have the workforce for that, either.

We are thus stuck with the assembly-line, mass-production model of education: run all the kids through the same curriculum, the same graduation requirements, the same standardized tests, the same regimented daily and semesterly schedule. Legislators and voters apparently don't trust our teachers and administrators with the resources it would take to do any more. We get what we pay for: cookie-cutter education that fails to meet the needs of ever more students.


  1. My kids did fine in traditional school. I have heard a father speak of a child who did not but who did succeed in Aim High.

    I just think it's a dichotomy that the legislature passed a law mandating kids stay in school until age 18, but then doesn't provide an alternative for those kids who will NOT (no matter what you do) succeed in or maybe even attend the traditional school setting. What happens to these kids? What happens to the parents who literally can't keep their kids in school? What happens to the other students in traditional high school when these other kids are disruptive? How do the teachers handle them?

    It's a good idea to keep students in school until graduation or age 18, but there then needs to be help for those few kids who simly cannot or will not succeed in a traditional school setting until age 18.

    How much does the alternative school actually cost? How does that compare with the other costs now mandated as part of schooling costs, like counseling, athletics, etc? Are people missing the point here?

  2. So, If I am reading you correctly, you would like to see less involvment from the legislators and more trust placed in the hands and minds of the teachers. Gosh Cory, that actually makes sense. However, I am confused why you don't think we can make government better to help you in education though? Given you have such high aspirations for government to help us with healthcare.

  3. Anon 2:28: do you have any observations on the value of alternative schools?

  4. I disagree with your assertion that 1 on 1 teaching is the best method. It breeds dependency rather than independence. I disagree with "group learning" for similar reasons.

    The objective of an education should be to teach one how to teach ones self. If the student always has someone to immediately interact with the student will never learn how to be an independent learner.

    It's unfortunate that the state isn't capable of paying for aim high anymore. Bringing these students back to the normal high school setting will just cause problems. Most of the aim high kids have emotion/social problems that regular high school cannot address.

  5. Yes, Funny you should ask. You are an educator, right? Instead of beating them over the head with the same old approach, try something different. You might have to get creative. We don't have two militaries. Unless you consider Fort Levenworth the second. Everybody that goes to basic training is expected to make it. If someone is struggling, then the squad members are expected to help the weaker candidate succeed. When I went to basic training we had a mamas boy from Gregory. Literally, no offense, he even said he was a mamas boy. He could not do one sit-up. So, the rest of us helped him perform active assistive sit-ups until he could do them on his own and then progress to the minimum requirements to pass his physical. Having said that, how about forming some student teaching positions in the present system to help. Sometimes kids do not feel as threatened by other kids. Next, we just received 124.5 million of stimulus for education. All I can say is how I wish my profession was receiving 124.5 million. My point from above is, why rely on legislators to do anything. Not everything is a government problem.

  6. There are all kinds of interventions and programs for kids thru grade school and middle school it seems, Title I, reading recoveory, individual teaching plans (not sure of correct name), etc. But when students get to high school and have problems and drop out, no help evidently. The alternative school wasn't that expensive, was it? No more so than the other multiple programs for struggling students. Why drop the ball in the last few years of education to help kids with problems, when all kinds of funding has been poured into the younger years? It just doesn't make sense. And if these kids are forced into attending regular high school and cause problems there, the kids who want to be there will be the losers. This whole issue doesn't make any sense to me.

  7. Tony, I disagree with the notion that one-on-one breeds dependency. I think it offers the best setting for a teacher to make sure the child isn't becoming dependent, that real learning is happening. I don't envision the teacher hovering over the child every second, but to get the learner to the point where she can teach herself, you need a committed, conscientious instructor who can serve as an effective learning partner, someone who can be "good company" in conversation to help the learner build understanding. And those conversations happen better one-on-one, where the teacher and student can follow whatever track may come up, rather than in groups, where the teacher has to accommodate the average or the lowest common denominator and thus stifle some routes of inquiry.

    And Anon 3:46, I'm a little nervous about the soldiers-students analogy, or any such analogy that legitimizes using the kids as slave labor. Isn't every student's first job to learn, not to do the job we ought to be paying teachers for? Why hold the smart kids back by making them rehash the easy stuff with the kids who still don't get it? Why not build a separate academy for the smart kids so they can succeed by their standards as well, just like the other alternative school kids?

  8. You asked for an idea, I gave you one. Nothing lost is nothing gained. The current system is apparently not working secondary to financial constraints or the inability to come up with another plan. Walk into a nursing home and see what it is like to serve a population with very, very,very limited resources and no 124.5 million in stimulus on the way.

  9. The best people to teach kids are their parents. When the school failed to teach our oldest in one subject, we kept him home that period and took care of it ourselves. Of course, that has created grief for us, but regardless of the grade given, something is being learned.

  10. Anon 8:10: Keep the ideas coming! But I hope you'll understand if I get a bit nervous about an idea that relies on child labor.

    Anon 8:21: "regardless of the grade given"—hear hear! There's another benefit of one-on-one instruction: you don't need to concoct some numerical rubric to justify your assessment of student progress. You can look your own kid in the eye, talk with him, and get a good picture of what he knows and what you should work on more, without any pressure to move on and keep all the other kids in line.


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