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Another Voice: Is public education as we know it today obsolete?

By Michael K. Hall

In 1986, Robert Fulghum published a book of short essays titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” At that time I was a young school superintendent and while I thought the book was an interesting read, I did not buy into his premise. Since that time, however, I slowly have begun to see more validity in his thinking.

During my career, I was able to participate in many initiatives designed to be the savior of public education. The Regents Action Plan of the 1980s and the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act are just two. Today it’s the Common Core program.

Simply taking a look at math education over the last 50 years is interesting. During the ’60s and ’70s we had the new math program. Then algebra, geometry and trigonometry became Course 1, 2 and 3. Then we went back to algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

Today’s Common Core math requires students to prove 2 + 2 = 4 through a series of boxes and dots. Memorization is not a Common Core concept. I know it is “old school,” but 2 + 2 has always equaled 4. What are we doing today that makes “common sense”?

We test students ad nauseam today, ostensibly to measure student learning. However, with each new and improved set of testing standards, the results are initially poor. These tests are quickly revised and/or curved and we now have “student improvement.” Does this really improve student learning?

The real culprit in the obsolesce of public education as we know it today is technology, which should be its savior. We have invested billions equipping our schools with computers, smart boards and iPads. Yet there is no empirical data that can definitively prove that these devices have, so far, made students any smarter.

I never attended kindergarten, and I had the same teacher for the first three grades. Mrs. Allen used Dick and Jane readers and the newspaper to help us learn to read. Timed tests were fun and they were used to hone our basic math skills. We learned about our country’s history and the world, and we memorized many facts.

Fulghum was right in all of his assumptions. However, we need to make a serious paradigm shift in our thinking of how we educate children. Since all of the obtainable knowledge that a person needs to function today is available on a smartphone, why continue the current way we educate students?

Young children barely out of diapers are phone and internet savvy. Social media are our children’s educational world today. This is good and bad. Technology needs to be channeled in such a way to make public education relevant again, because what it currently offers is not getting the job done.

Michael K. Hall, of Orchard Park, is a retired school superintendent.

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