What We’re Digging For
by Steve Mcfarland
“Heigh Ho! Heigh Ho! It’s off to work we go!”
It seems almost another life ago when I recall my first real job out of high school. Before I started college, I worked as a machinist in a local factory for a couple of years. I was miserable. I decided to try college and work toward an entirely different career. After cramming four years of college into five years, I graduated and began my career in human services, where I have worked for the past twenty years. But those days in that machine shop may have provided me the greatest lessons of my life and shaped my character and work ethic in a way no college experience could.
One of the frustrations of my work as a machinist was that I would make a part for machines that did things I never really understood. The foreman would hand me a blueprint of something and I would begin machining the steel to the correct dimensions and when finished hand it over without knowing how it would be used. I cleaned up my mess and waited for the next blueprint to be handed to me so that I could begin machining another piece of steel for other unknown reasons. And I did that every day.
“We dig, dig, dig – in our mine the whole day through”
The consolation was that I knew the work I had finished was put to good use. The presses kept pressing out those strange metal parts and if the foreman did not complain – I knew my work did something good. I can only imagine how frustrating the job would be if I did my work and discovered the pieces manufactured served no real purpose except as a showcase for the foreman. “We make the finest parts in the business!” “Yes, but can they do anything?” “Well, no! But they sure look good.”
“To dig, dig, dig – is what we like to do”
Never in my most disillusioned dreams did I think I would be facing that dilemma in the school where I now work. Ask any educator, at least the NEA card carriers, and they will tell you the importance of their work. Lawmakers around the U.S. have bought into the public education spin of teachers being the most overworked, underpaid under-appreciated workforce on the planet. For years politicians have campaigned for state office based on their emphasis on education and how to fix it, sell it, and pay for it. And so America bought it – hook, line, textbook. Every extra piece of revenue available to a state – including lotteries, tobacco settlements, and new taxes were stuffed into public education’s lunch box. Well guess what? The widgets being produced are leaving a lot to be desired and we are out of money. But those widgets sure look good.
“It ain’t no trick to get rich quick, if you dig, dig, dig, with a shovel or a pick.”
The education machine in this country is run amuck mostly due to a lack of honesty. School districts have become masters at portraying themselves as successful while hiding the truth of the number of students who continue to fail despite the increased financial resources states have made available. I for one am ready to explore other possibilities in this country that could benefit schools, communities, and most importantly – the students. The great battle in education reform is between the educators –not the students or families. Public education has responded to reform the way silly putty handles a newfound shape. It has always returned to its old form. The efforts for change have been noble, well intentioned and in some cases extremely effective. But it all begs the question: Is public education really working?
“We dig up diamonds by the score – a thousand rubies sometimes more. But we don’t know what we dig ’em for. We dig, dig, dig a dig, dig.”
This will sound odd, but I am arguing that most of public education is more interested in the system of education than the actual product. Most decisions made within a school or school system are influenced more by the teaching professionals than the students or families they serve. Public education has failed because it is not sufficiently consumer driven.
So, I propose some real changes – reform influenced by what is best for preparing young people for their future.
Here are some of my ideas.
1. Let students have the dignity of choosing to pursue vocational studies on a full time basis after they complete the ninth grade. Education has done a poor job of convincing young people the value in vocational studies, while portraying those who choose that path as failures. Anything short of higher education is sold to our students as being inadequate and many, many students are squandering their time and parent’s money pursuing a college degree.
2. Allow students the option of discontinuing their education and begin working after they complete the ninth grade. Allow that to happen with dignity. I’m sure teachers would be glad to release those students who have no desire to be in school and for them to be able to work It could slow down illegal activities as well. Of course, this would be an almost impossible sell. But, realistically, there are many young people who need to get out of school as soon as possible and would do themselves and everyone else good by going to work. There have been numerous examples in my experience of students who failed daily in the classroom but are hard workers at home and frustrated they can’t earn much needed money. Let ’em go, for goodness sakes!
3. View students and their families as customers and accommodate them. Most decisions within a school are made to accommodate the teachers and their schedule. For example: studies are showing that young people require more sleep than adults and function better later in the day. We have known that for years – yet we hypocritically ignore that data to keep the cushy schedule the teachers have come to expect.
4. Allow individuals to teach without having a degree in education. There are many wonderful teachers out there that cannot teach because of certification issues. It would not take much for qualified experienced individuals to learn the mechanics of being a teacher without having to complete a four-year degree program. I know many highly skilled individuals who could offer much to youth and would do so gladly, but do not have a degree. I am convinced that the many hoops required to be teacher certified are not necessary to weed out those unqualified, but exist to bolster the claims of invincibility for those who are.
5. Vouchers. Vouchers. Vouchers.
I would wish nothing but success for America’s public education system, but I believe it is time for a good dose of practicality. Reality Therapist guru Bill Glasser said many years ago that students in the inner city would be better served learning to combat rodents than knowing how to identify a dangling participle. I will not go so far as to limit education to only that which is practical, but we need to face the reality that many our children need more practical “how to” education for the world they will face.
Real education reform will require radical change that pleads for America to throw out methodologies that accommodate the system and not the students. We cannot afford to continue this “heigh-ho” attitude that never questions what we’re digging for or why.