Richard DesChenes: Use schools more efficiently
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 3:09 p.m.
If I were a businessman, and had several hundred million dollars invested in buildings and equipment, along with a large staff to operate it, I would want to maximize my opportunities by using those resources to their potential. Our school system is a business in every sense, with the product being educated students. Our expensive school facilities sit idle for half of the year and a good part of the working day, and from any way you look at it, are not performing up to their potential. Many students never get their diplomas, having dropped out somewhere along the path. For some students, school is a warehouse, a place to be stored for the day and offer little help to meet their individual needs.
For years and years we have dumped billions of dollars into new and better buildings, programs, systems, teaching methods and whatever. Yet, the metrics by which we measure success show that we are not getting high numbers of educated high school students out the door with diplomas. It is time to rethink how we use our tools, and make a drastic change in our methods. Our culture has changed, and our school culture has to change with it. The high school system needs to accommodate the students, not the staff, teachers and parents.
I spent many years in manufacturing. The facility that I worked in for my last 16 years had 1,600 employees. We changed from an eight hour, two shift, five day work week; to 24/7, 365 days a year operation: with no holidays, or the summer break for retooling. Everyone still took vacations, and had sick time or personal days off, but nothing stopped. As a staff member, I had to adjust my life to accommodate the production schedule, as did the production workers. It was not easy when we made the change from that eight-hour day, five-day work week. But, in a short time, we all adjusted to the new schedules. The result was that our output and quality went up, as did our profits.
One of my jobs was failure analysis: identifying the root cause of the malfunction in a product that failed during testing or in the field. I am currently working as an itinerant educator: traveling to students' homes, and tutoring them in what they should have learned in school. In the process, I do a failure analysis of why they did not achieve the levels at which they needed to be. For the most part, I find that our current system has a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching: the instructor has a schedule to meet, one lesson plan, and that's what everyone gets. Unfortunately, not everyone gets it within the scheduled time. These are my students.
I'm not suggesting that we run our high schools 24/7, but we do need to do away with the long summer vacation and spring break while offering classes after hours and on Saturdays. We need to use our physical school facilities more efficiently, like a business, and be flexible. The high schools should operate much like the university does -- with campuses across a wide area -- not as individual entities that have boundaries, attendance zones and such. Students should be able to select a schedule of classes to meet their specific goala. It might mean they could even attend different schools during the year and have online classes. This would allow many students, that need to work, take time off to have their babies, or get classes that are not available at a particular time or school, to get the credits needed for graduation. Everyone would still have to meet the metric for graduation and mandated testing, but how they get there would be a different path.
There will be detractors, with all sorts of excuses for not making any changes, and keeping the system as it is. These people are generally in a comfortable position and don't want to make waves by taking risks. With our youth's futures at stake, we need to start taking some risks. Questions of how to take the census of students, to qualify for the state's money, will be brought up. This is where technology comes into play. Students can scan their ID cards wherever they go to class: just like many of us do when we go to work. This would save time in taking roll, or trying to figure out where a particular student is at a given time. There will be complaints from parents about sports programs, and other extra-curricular activities that the students need for a "full high school experience." Yes, there needs to be some social interaction among students, but being in school, and getting an education, that means something, is more important for many of them. Those students who wish to participate in extra-curricular activities will have to select where they want to do those things. There will be transportation issues, but these are things that can be mitigated with some planning and logistics shuffling.
With the rigorous new standards that will be in place in the coming years, the current program will produce many more frustrated students, angry parents, and dropouts. We need to maximize the opportunity for the students to get what they deserve. Not everyone wants, or needs, to go to college, and those that aren't on a college track should be getting a full measure as well.
We need to spend some time doing an analysis of each student's needs, then adapt our system to meet them. This might mean that a teacher will have an individual lesson plan for each student: but that would not be any different than 100 years ago, when we had one-room school houses. Which, in their day, turned out some very well educated people. Lesson planning is another place where we need to add technology to the picture, and allow the teachers to focus on those things that will give our students the edge they need to be productive in the workplace. We need more teachers in each classroom, working individually with the students, not more administrators and their staff.
The process can start out on a small scale, at one or two schools: targeting those students at risk for dropping out or failure. As the process is developed, and problems arise, changes can be implemented. Once the process is working on the small scale, it can be expanded to a larger pool of students. There will be new costs along the way, but these would probably be offset with increased attendance.
In the long run, the cost of not educating our children is more than what it would be if we were to do it right the first time. The government is spending billions on tutoring and re-education programs to reach out to those students who have slipped through the chasms in the system. It's money being well spent, but if the system was working properly, I wouldn't have to travel to several peoples' homes after hours every day; sit at their kitchen table with their child; and explain the material that they should have gotten a year or two before. Until something drastic is done, I will have plenty of work.
Richard DesChenes lives in Archer.