Required homework for school critics

The heat generated at the recent M-PHS open house came as no surprise. Proposals for change always stir controversy. When a body of parents is faced with a restructuring of their childrens educational future, three red flags pop up.
The first red flag warns them that yet another educational experiment is about to be implemented. The second rose because citizens werent satisfied with the answers to their questions. Number three relates to an undercurrent of discomfort rising from a suspicion that the new design, like new math, will leave them wondering what the heck is going on.
Tom Friedman, author of The World is Flat, ignores all such predictable complaints in his challenge to parents: In short, we need a new generation of parents ready to administer tough love; There comes a time when youve got to put away the Game Boys, turn off the television, shut off the iPod, and get your kids down to work. Cant argue with that. The problem is, we dont do it.
The root of the issue is that weve become a fun-loving, easy-going, society of toy collectors that rates entertainment higher than education. Friedman is right. To fix schools we have to challenge the society that underwrites them. When the health of the nation depends on the outcome, its time to pull up our socks and meet the challenge.
Our local question is, do Marysvilles high schools need the fix proposed by the administration? If the world was still what it was fifty years ago, I could say no. But society everywhere has been impacted by factors that leave teachers trying to accomplish Mission Impossible. Upping the graduation rate and raising test scores is a tough assignment. But should students and parents become magically infected with a conviction that school is a one-time opportunity to become readied for success in life, the problem would disappear.
Learning how to earn success is what school is about. Call it a maturing process because success couples with maturity unless one specializes in rap or grunge-rock. Americans dont grow up soon enough. Some never do. Many bumble in and out of gainful employment because they approach work as sloppily as they approached schooling. Schools would like to do something about that, and a good first step is to provide kids with opportunities to discover and hone their talents and interests. Thats hard to do in a one-size-fits-all program.
Our traditional scheme of general education fits Americas youth like Army boots fit the Army. If your feet fall within certain design parameters, theyre okay. But if you suffer from any of the common podiatric quirks that afflict humanity, you limp and grimace throughout your enlistment. Not fun.
So it is with our educational system unique but not praiseworthy in the industrialized world. The Third Annual Mathematics and Science Survey of twenty-one nations ranked the U.S. next to last, ahead of only Cyprus. Other nations havent shied away from specialized educational strands. Elsewhere, students interests and abilities lead them into programs that hold their interest while readying them for meaningful employment. Though foreign nations systems do exhibit flaws, it is worth remembering that students in most developed nations score significantly better than our youngsters do across a range of international tests.
Take Croatia for example. The Croatian city of Split is smaller than Tacoma but has twenty-three high schools. Twenty are specialized and three are magnet-type college-prep gymnasiums. All have separate facilities. My waiter, Luka, at Restaurant Adriatica, graduated from Waiters Secondary School where half of his time was spent in general studies including math, history and geography.
A special high school for waiters? Not only that, he told me there were high schools for cooks and bakers, too. But a waiters high school? Isnt waiting tables something you do because it doesnt require special training?
A Croatian waiter is expected to know four languages besides Croatian. He (waiting tables is a mans work there) knows every ingredient that might come out of the kitchen and precisely how each dish is prepared. He knows restaurant management and customer psychology and, of course, how to make every diners evening special. Most impressive was seeing how proud his qualifications made him of his profession.
Stjepko and Zorana Simovi'c of Dubrovnik spoke of their daughter, now in her last year of high school. She takes from five to seven subjects per term, totaling fourteen per year. She is in class six hours each day and spends five hours nightly doing homework. They worry when her light is on past midnight but understand that learning is her profession during her high school years.
A sign above a Croatian doorway in a three-hundred year old stone building says, Maritime Secondary School. Inside, students learn maritime law, how to derive a livelihood from the sea, navigate, maintain boats, conserve fish stocks, and all else thats needed to ensure safety and success in addition to a half day of general studies.
No students or faculty parking lots. Just classrooms. No playfields or gyms yet everyone is in enviable physical shape. Students ride city buses or walk to school as though there is a law against arriving by private motor vehicle.
Every student has at least one hour of music per week in that music-rich nation where, in the small city of Dubrovnik, we were treated to world-class jazz artists. When I asked where they were from, I was told, From here, of course. Dubrovnik. Visitors are surprised at the number and quality of vocal music groups that perform for the fun of it at street corners or in parks. This, too, is an outgrowth of Croatian education.
Dunja Haidi'c, a Croatian special ed teacher, summarized her perception of the difference between U.S. and Croatian education. She asked, How is it that your universities can be so good when your secondary schools are doing so poorly? Thats the very question Marysvilles school leaders are doing their best to address.
Before condemning Marysvilles plan, critics should first check to see what it has done for the many high schools that have adopted it.

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