Tuesday, April 9, 2013

As Adventist Men We Must Get Behind Our Schools

It's time for a revolution in SDA education

It is time our SDA school system got past the one teacher/one grade classroom model. A lot of Adventist educators are pushing for change, but so far its mostly a top-down effort. It's time for some grass roots activism.  There are a lot of things we could do to change the way our local schools run.  We could, for instance, reach out into the community to home-school families.  Other Christian schools like King’s Academy in Tyler, Texas already do that.  They offer certain classes to home schooled kids that are problematic for home-school parents to provide – athletics, choir, music, equipment intensive science, etc..
Teacher Classroom @ Walla Wall Adventist College
missing a lot of opportunity. There is not reason SDA schools could not do similar outreach programs.

I think it’s time we turned our schools wholesale into mission schools with a focus on outreach. There are many challenges faced by U.S. schools that could be addressed if our schools returned to the original SDA school model.  These issues include:

  2. Discipline
  3. Vocational Training
  4. Home-schooling
  5. Failure to learn
  6. High drop-out rates

Let’s look at one that hits me where I live – ADHD.  Ellen White suggests that some kids should NOT be in formal classrooms till they are age 10 – that they should be free as lambs and allowed to grow.  I think she’s talking about so-called “hyper” kids of the sort who are labeled ADD/ADHD.  Such kids who enter school at a later age, have been shown to catch up quickly with their peers and to function better in classes than those hyper kids who start early and are forced to show up on time, sit in desks, do repetitive work and not sass authority figures from an early age.  This German “Kindergarten” model was adopted by the US education system in the early 1900s.  It was designed to train workers for industries like Kruppwerks, Messerschmidt, Fokker and other war industries. 

The trouble is, relatively few of us work in heavy industry in this country anymore.  In our current economy, the ability to do repetitive tasks and to follow directions is rapidly becoming less important than the ability, as futurist Marshall McLuhan put it, “...to learn, unlearn and relearn.”  More and more the workforce needs people who can ramp up their skills and knowledge for a project, do it and then move on, ramp up for another project and do that one.  An education system that reinforces passive obedience and the ability to do repetitive work without complaining is hardly relevant anymore and yet the teachers who manage our  public school classrooms cling desperately to that system.

In the US, we are ill-suited to such a system.  Our ancestors included too many “hyper” people who gto kicked out of their own countries.  These restless souls, not content to remain in the fair lands of the East Coast, pushed the boundaries of this country westward until they hit the Pacific coast and couldn’t go any further.  Then they invented Hollywood which is like an ADD paradise.  In their wake these wild-eyed pioneers left behind them a progeny that now has the highest rate of ADD in the world.  It’s time we as Adventists recognized this and created a school system that recognizes and reaches out to the kids we actually have in this country and not to the ones we wish we had.

Ellen White offers us a model education system that is perfect for the children we have and the needs of our nation’s economy.  She urges in her writings that we offer more flexible options – late entry, more vocational training, Bible study and religious training broadly infused into the curriculum.  She suggests partnering our schools with our medical work and with business and industry to offer our kids real world vocational skills training as early as possible. 

I agree with her. With computer systems and modern testing technology it is possible to identify a student’s interests and to create a vocational profile at a very early age.  In fifth and sixth grades we could help a child choose his or her life’s work and with a properly designed education system, we could send them on their way.  New technology offers a wide range of skills to learn that are not subject to OSHA restrictions the way industrial skills are.  Such technology could allow a child to learn all about architecture, design and construction without their ever having to pick up a circular saw or nail gun until they were old enough.  Such kids would quickly become independent contractors, architects, designers and crew leaders almost right out of high school.

The dropout rate could be sharply reduced, if we gave kids training that was relevant to their skills and interests rather than offering them only a one-size, fits-all precollege preparatory curriculum that they probably will never use.  SDA teachers have long been teaching in the kinds of multi-directional classrooms that could be adapted to address groups of kids on individually tailored programs. One-teacher small school settings are ideal for an individually tailored curriculum.  One-room schoolteachers are already waltzing between a graded and study-at-your-own-pace model and would likely thrive in a truly individualized classroom.  Back when I was teaching we were trained in college to teach in one grade/one classroom schools.  Almost as an afterthought we were given a "seminar" in how to teach in multi-grade one teacher schools.  It was, at best, a cobbled-together affair that didn't work well. And even if you did manage to get your kids to learn, or even excel, woe unto you if there was an ex-teacher on the board because what you were doing didn't look like proper teaching the way she used to do it.  

SDA Teachers all over the country, have been winging it for years, struggling toward the type of individualized model I've been talking about.  It's time they got a little support from the Adventist grassroots. There is a lot of expertise and resources out there in Adventist congregations and its time we used them.

Also, it’s time we made our schools less dependent on donations and more self-sufficient and sustainable. A busy vocational training program would not only offer kids a chance to jump start their careers, but would also generate income to support the school.  The boost to the student’s self-image from helping earn the money to pay for their own schooling cannot be underestimated.  In this fast-paced world, how much better would it be to equip our students to support themselves in better paying jobs from the time they cross that artificial 18 years old line into adulthood.  If they choose to go on to college, then they have the ability to pay off more of their college tuition if they choose to pursue an advanced degree.  That means graduating without a crushing school loan debt.

We can do it.  Modern technology makes it possible. One forward-thinking school board could start the revolution, creating new school designs, reworking curriculums, redesigning classrooms, rewriting coursework, restructuring how it monitors progress and rethinking who its students are.  Any school in the nation could become a self-supporting institution providing not only on-site coursework, but also low cost home schooling resources via the Internet.  Teachers could refocus their energies from disciplining large groups of kids toward mentoring students independent explorations.  They could facilitate students’ efforts to find their way toward the career for which God has fit them.  They could spend time writing new training materials, on-line tests and assessment instruments, reviewing student work and encouraging parents to become more involved.

Teachers would work as coaches and mentors rather than as dry lecturers and disciplinarians.  It’s far easier to discipline kids who have something to do than it is to corral kids who are overwhelmed or bored.  A self-paced system would virtually eliminate the problem of holding back the smart kids and dragging the slower learners along at everyone else’s pace. 

We are standing on the threshold of a revolution in education at a time when the public school system is mired in an institutional bog and failing America’s kids on a massive scale.  It’s time local school boards and local leaders got involved.  

Here’s what you could do to reinvent your own school:

  1. Discuss the issues with your local school board.  If you are a parent, you may start with a couple of informal parent groups, then approach the board about creating a working group. Agree not to look for who is to blame, but to look for solutions to the problem.
  2. Create a strategic plan.  Sit down and imagine where you would like to be in five years and draw up goals and objectives for how to get there.  These will change and be adapted as you move forward.  Remember these are goals for the board, the parents and the church to accomplish NOT the poor overworked, under-paid teacher that’s working for you.  Be sure and include all the teachers, but don’t dump stuff on them.  They have enough to do running the school – especially during a transition period.
  3. Think outside the box.  Do a working session as you develop the goals and objectives and encourage every wild idea you can think of to be put on the table.  Interesting ideas should be assigned to subcommittees to develop and present to the working group for adoption.
  4. Expand your school’s customer base.  The schools should offer educational resources for everyone whether they be kids in traditional classes, home-schoolers or non-SDA families. The school should strengthen its resources so that it provides the kinds of laboratories, libraries, technical, athletic and specialized facilities not readily available to home-school families.  Think about how to use local museums, wildlife parks, libraries and even corporate resources and make yourself the go-to place to find out about them and how to use them.  Become THE community educational resource for information about where to get access to materials and services that beef up a home-school curriculum.  Offer those kids access to athletics, music, science and other coursework that goes beyond the basic 3 R’s. You WILL grow your student body that way and you will be able to bring in some extra income.  Offer a “home school” membership for a small monthly fee that allows home-schoolers access to your resource guides. Charge a reasonable fee for them to join your choir, baseball team or to take science lab classes in your lab facilities.
  5. Meet with other school boards in your conference.  Pull together a conference and invite other school boards to come look at what you are doing and to talk about building alliances.  Perhaps your school has a great science guy, but no one with music experience and a nearby school has a terrific choir director, but no science strength.  Work out an exchange of personnel that benefits both schools and get the conference behind such teacher-sharing arrangements.  You may want to bus the kids to another school for a science day or a music day.  You can even work out a bus-sharing agreement whereby several schools share the cost of a bus between them. 
  6. Draw on community resources.  Identify talented church members with special skills that could be transmitted to your students.  A brilliant working computer programmer, an information systems manager, a wildlife expert, a physician, a chiropractor, nutritionist, account or other expert could perhaps be persuaded to come to your school several times a month for a while to help teach your children’s biology class, computer skills class, and accounting or health classes. Let these guys teach new off-the-curriculum stuff that gives the kids a glimpse of what it’s like to work in the field in this subject. 
  7. Meet with conference, union and national education officials.  Choose someone articulate who has taken a strong leadership role in your efforts to revitalize your school.  Send that person to meet with officials all the way up to the world conference level and seek their blessing for what you are trying to do.  If it works, I promise you the idea will spread. And while you may experience some resistance from the “Wait for me I’m your leader!” crowd, you will also find many allies along the way who will champion your efforts.  
Ellen White was correct when she said the greatest want of the world is the want of men.  Women have been pushing education forward for a long time and we’ve become used to hearing and too-often dismissing them.  It’s time the men in the church took a leadership roll in education and not just as Education department heads.  It’s time we took the lead locally, put ourselves out there and made an effort to contribute to our children’s education.  It involves real work and real sacrifice.  

Your wives and the ladies in the church will likely be surprised and grateful.  They have been holding the school together for a long time through hard work and dedication.  Too often they’ve done it almost alone. Your children, however, will be the real winners when their Dads get involved.  Men are gifted at moving projects forward into new areas, at turning ideas into bricks and mortar and at achieving long-term goals.  

We cannot accept the status quo. We cannot let our education system erode and crumble. We are needed in the breech today, if we are to hold what we have and to advance the cause of Adventist Education.

Tom King, © 2013

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