Idaho education policymakers have been conducting hearings about what should be taught in Idaho schools. One has to wonder why rooms full of “experts” over decades cannot reach any lasting clarity so districts, individual schools and instructional staffs can focus their efforts and develop sustainable programs that deliver positive results. The frequent reality in schools is that about the time re-tooling around a set of changes is ready to roll, new changes come down the pipe and the process begins all over. Full implementation of complex standards takes years.
I have learned through experience that when groups revisit issues in seemingly endless cycles of tweak and patch, it is often because there is no authentic, resonant goal to guide debate and decision-making. When decision-making is trapped in a context lacking a core purpose, it frequently produces mediocre results that satisfy no one.
It seems reasonable for state taxpayers to require educational policymakers to clearly define the purpose of Idaho public education. I believe public education has been patched up and held together with the policy equivalents of paperclips and duct tape for generations. Its purpose has been obscured and convoluted by a variety of special-interest agendas and unmet societal needs while its funding has been plundered.
Many of those who shaped this country initially felt public education was essential to level the playing field (to the extent possible) and prevent the rise of an educated elite who could wield undue influence for personal gain. They believed the very survival of our representational democracy depended on an informed electorate who could collectively hold officials and the privileged accountable. They looked to the public to guarantee its own collective well-being in the face of special-interest groups, demigod leaders and private agendas by knowing how to learn, think and reach conclusions based on information rather than emotion.
If our survival as a democratic republic hinges largely on knowledgeable, reasoning citizens, perhaps educational policy-makers should consider what skill sets and information citizen guardians require. Necessary skills would undoubtedly include the ability to question, locate accurate information, process it, apply it to a specific circumstance, envision a variety of cause and effect scenarios, and develop reasoned conclusions. If citizens were questioning, analyzing and thinking critically, our politicians would be held to a higher standard.
In a public education system charged with producing an informed, engaged citizenry, students would thoroughly understand how our government operates at all levels. They would grasp how cities, states and the federal government interface and can hold each other accountable. They would understand the foundational history of this country from the conquest of Native people and the economics of African enslavement through the revolt against tyranny and lack of voice that helped spawn the American Revolution. They would thoroughly explore influences shaping contemporary society and how current attitudes and efforts spring from our collective history filtered through individual experiences.
Public education has furthered a variety of agendas throughout its history. It has been the foundational 3 Rs (reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic) deemed necessary to conduct the basic business of daily living. It has served to sort youngsters and (supposedly) identify the intellectual elite. It has trained students to follow instructions, function within rigid time boundaries and respond to bells to acclimate them to the needs of factories. It has been enlisted to combat a myriad of social ills. It has imparted fictional history to whitewash portions of our past and project an image of mythical superiority. The list of expectations is vast and shifts continually leaving our school personnel and students struggling to find a lasting mission.
I suggest we go back to the foundational wisdom of our early leaders. I suggest we ensure our survival as a grand experiment in governance by educating future voters and empowering them with a sense of their critical role in the preservation of our country.
How would this mission play out in terms of curricula and standards?
First, it would place civics, history and social ethics squarely at the center of learning. There is a wealth of reading, writing and arts curriculum that flows logically from this focus. Virtually every moral and ethical dilemma facing humanity and its governments can be examined and debated by studying history, contemporary society, literature and art. Ideas and dilemmas central to our society and government are often best expressed though writing and the arts.
Second, understanding the scientific principles apparently governing our planet, societies, individual behaviors and the ecological matrix within which we live are crucial. Without knowledge in these areas, it is virtually impossible to predict the advisability of potential government and/or individual actions.
Third, the ability to understand and “think” quantitatively using a numeric “alphabet” and “syntax” is of paramount importance. Much knowledge must be quantified and examined numerically to discern patterns, extract statistics, compare outcomes and predict future impacts.
Finally, it seems inescapable that we must understand the interdependent global community in which we live whether we like it or not. World economies and cultures are inextricably interwoven. No country can produce everything it and its highly globalized consumers need and want.
Many students currently experience “subjects” or content areas as separate and unrelated to each other or to anything in “real life.” All too often, courageous students unwilling to perform for external rewards such as grades or compliments tell us we are failing them. They tell us they see no reason for learning much of what we try to teach them. We have no good answers.
If the fundamental purpose of K-12 education were to train discerning citizens in whose hands the future of our country rests, and all learning were tied to that central mission, I believe schooling would be more meaningful for many students. I believe they would value themselves as well as their teachers more than many do currently.
I can only hope our Idaho educational leaders will realize our public education system has been hijacked over time and has lost its way. I can only hope they value this grand experiment called America enough to educate our young citizens to become the impassioned, discerning voters we so often lack today.
Chris Stevens of Pocatello is a former not-for-profit corporation founder and director, school administrator, and rock and roll radio promotion director. Her current passions are landscaping, grassroots political organizing, and volunteering for socially and environmentally conscious organizations. She is a co-founder of the Gateway Coalition for Change and is proud to have settled in Idaho.