Keating: A New School Year

August 21, 2019

by Maryann O. Keating

It is almost September and classes have begun or are about to start. We detect some reluctance in students, but not in adds for school supplies or with summer-weary parents. Parents and retailers are more than ready. For teachers as well, there is inevitably an autumn bounce in starting anew and getting it right this year.

But what exactly does “getting education right” imply?

We reminisce nostalgically of times past when six-year-olds, with or without kindergarten, joined a class of 25 or more students headed with one teacher. The expectation was that by June, those without significant impairment would master Dick and Jane. Third graders were initiated into the study of history, and fifth graders learned to diagram sentences and calculate how many tiles Mr. Smith needed to cover a particular surface. And so it went, in public and private schools, until the end of eighth grade, when teacher and parents sat down to discuss if Johnny or Susan were on track for high school algebra and foreign language. Or, at least for now, should one or the other pursue vocational classes.

Times are different. A first grader’s parent might inform the teacher that Sally reads at a fifth-grade level. Thus, Sally requires enrichment; otherwise, she will become bored and act out. Another parent indicates that son, Joe, although brilliant, learns in a different manner and needs customized instruction and access to special services. Meanwhile, a principal justifies students’ inability to do well on standardized tests as being due to teachers’ inadequacy. And so, perhaps unrealistically, we insist on personalized educational experiences ensuring high performance outcomes from first grade and beyond .

The issues are: What should be taught? Has a standardized age-appropriate curriculum become obsolete? How can a school (or teacher) indicate student performance?

It is still generally acknowledged that, “Teachers teach, and students learn.” This statement correctly iimplies the impossibility of guaranting results. The school accreditation process can only certify (but this is of great importance) that an outside group of professionals agree that certain procedures have been followed. Note the term “procedures,” not “outcomes.”

Educational institution are sometimes given the opportunity by accreditors to explain and therefore be evaluated on how their procedures differ from other schools. Howecever, the expectation is that all institutions be transparent about how they have chosen to implement a given curriculum.

Therefore, it is up to the client to select an option most closely meeting their own child’s or, in the case of a school district, their community’s needs. Regretably, neither families nor the nation as a whole can afford one-on-one K-12 tutoring delivered by highly trained instructors tailored to every individual’s needs and capabilities.

Contrary to cute stories in the media about silver-bullet educational innovations, we might do well to take the advice of textbook editors to teachers, “Deliver what has worked over time in your particular discipline and exercise innovations and creativity for about 20 percent of the instructional time allocated.”

We hear of academic super-stars trained in developing countries by normal school instructors sent out to villages with nothing more than a box of chalk and a binder containing a standard curriculum. It is hoped that here in the U.S. we have sufficient resources to reach the hearts and minds of a much higher percentage of those enrolled.

With respect to education, we are never completely satisfied. Nonetheless, with children, there is always hope and wonderful surprises. Therefore, we approach the school year in joyful anticipation.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell.


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