April 3, 2007

Editorial: Education merry-go-round

Have you heard about the newest trend in K-12 education? It’s schools for grades K-8, instead of middle schools. Moving away from separate schools for young teens is supposed to be a safer, more nurturing environment than the current model of middle schools.

Oh, wait. Why is this so familiar?

There are still some of us alive who remember when K-8 schools were the norm and middle schools were the new education rage. School districts all over the nation were persuaded to construct new buildings and revamp curriculum in order to yield to the newest studies and reports, all seeming to say that the educational needs of young teenagers were so unique as to need their own building and new programs. Kids would emerge smarter, more independent and socially secure, we were told.

Fast forward 30 years and the pendulum is swinging the other way. It turns out that scooping 11-year-olds out of community-based elementary schools and putting them in a mini-high school environment may not be the best thing for them after all. Perhaps it is too soon. Perhaps it’s a case of ‘fixing’ something that’s not broken.

There are also people who recall a time before junior high school, when kids went directly from primary school to high school. Then someone got the idea that kids needed a ‘transition period’ before being dumped into the radically different atmosphere of high school. At first it was 9th-graders who were set apart, then 7th and 8th grades.

Then we abolished junior highs to the realm of corporal punishment and slateboards and brought middle schools to the forefront.

Education in the U.S. seems permeated with faddism and trends. Once upon a time educating the young was all about repetition and rote learning. Then someone decided that wasn’t really reaching into their little minds – interpretive, hands-on learning was needed. Decades of learning math with ‘manipulatives’ and loosey-goosey writing lessons followed and quick on its heels were vocational classes in technology and history lessons that let you view the world through Hollywood movies.

Whoosh, goes the pendulum. Now the battle cry heard from many factions is “back to the basics,” bring back recitation and ban pottery and P.E.

Nothing in a society should remain stagnant and education is no exception. Trouble is, few of these innovative ideas come without a price – and we don’t just mean money. Restructuring student groupings means new buildings and modifying current buildings. Altering curriculum and/or program emphasis means retraining teachers and purchasing new classroom supplies.

Meanwhile, our schools are guinea pigs in an educational experiment so vast that it makes our heads spin. If you have a good-sized spread in the ages of your children you may have experienced three entirely different methods of math education – none of which was how you learned it yourself.

This switcheroo in educational methodology causes the community at large to disassociate themselves from their local schools, for it’s no longer a familiar thing they can support.
Investigate new ideas, to be sure, but move cautiously. By the time it’s been thoroughly looked at and implemented, the pendulum could be on its way again.

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