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Our values, education at odds

Are good schools ‘countercultural?’

As some of you know I subscribe to several educational publications and also surf the Internet looking for new ideas in education.

In this week’s edition of “Education Week” I came across an article from Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools that addressed a concern I have held for many years.

Bassett puts in tabular form some of the conflicts between what he believes are values in effective education and values in public culture.

As I visit schools in the district, and in recent weeks in several other districts in-state and in other states, I am often troubled by this disconnection between the values of scholarship and “society.” Based upon the posters that I see in hallways and the actions and dress of some of students I find a major disconnect between “learning,” as I have known it, and these images. Some of the discussions I have had with students haven’t improved my opinion of this disconnection.

Bassett compares the “popular culture” where “rationalizing dishonesty” is compared with “expecting honorable behavior,” which is what we all look for in our schools. Examples of this disconnection he cites include deceits of leaders and some of our advertising efforts. Clearly, what kids see in the environment outside the schoolyard are counter to what is expected of them in the classroom. How are kids to decide what is appropriate?

Another one of these disconnects Bassett cites is “exhibiting vulgarity” as we see in many prime time TV shows, and what Bassett suggests we expect in a classroom. Bassett calls this “insisting on civility.” I don’t watch a great deal of prime time TV, school board meetings are at this time, but when I view a few short minutes of this, I am often struck by the same disconnection. We, in classrooms have to confront “incivility,” and we have to set standards for “demeanor and appearance” that are clearly not what our children see in some of their time outside of a classroom. It is said that kids spend about 7 percent of their time in a classroom setting and I would suspect that many spend a great deal more than 7 percent of their time watching TV where a conflicting set of values is often portrayed.

One more category from Bassett. “Conspicuous consumption,” as exhibited by status markers of clothing and cars, is compared to “environmental stewardship” as exhibited by modeling good citizenship. How often I have seen this conflict in a school setting! It would seem to me that some kids come to school only to make a “statement” by their actions and appearance.

I often call this the “hallway curriculum” and I continue to worry that this curriculum has now come to dominate our schools. Discussions that I have with kids in our schools continues to reinforce, to me, that in the junior and senior high school setting we continue to find a very large portion of our kids who have very high priorities for what is happening in the hallways and lunch rooms. Often these priorities are much higher than for academics. These kids are far more concerned about what is happening in hallways and lunchrooms and how they can make the appropriate statement in that setting.

I have suggested that if the WASL were designed to measure the hallway curriculum our scores would soar. The learning process hasn’t changed in eons. Humans still learn with the same brain cells as our predecessors used, and yet we have added an entirely new set of skills that we are allowing our kids to devote considerable amounts of their time to. We are still expecting them to master algebra but students also master hallway curriculum that often belittles core academic knowledge. For many kids the trade off is very unfortunate as they mature into adults. We learned this month that one of our local community colleges has 82 percent of its new students taking remedial mathematics. Clearly the trade off between algebra and hallway curriculum didn’t work well for mathematics.

Bassett’s short article, titled “Why Good Schools are Countercultural” can be found at www.edweek.org and I urge all who can access this to take a minute to read it. Should it be taken off the Web site before you read it, please feel free to contact me and I will send it to you. As I have suggested before “it will take some adult involvement” to change this situation.

Charles Hoff is vice president of the Federal Way School Board and serves as the Community Advisory Committee liaison.

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