23 August, 2007

Education as process, not endpoint

A friend of mine who is a parent and former educator sent me a link to a New York Times article about efforts in that city to accommodate the needs of potential drop-outs. Using a combination of Gates Foundation grant money and taxpayer dollars, the educational leadership created special "transfer schools" with a menu of services to help older-than-average, at-risk students earn their credits without the stigma that drives many to drop out.

In New York City, that's nearly one quarter of the high school student population.

My friend is intrigued by the concept of making it easy for young people to re-enter high school for a fifth or even sixth year, as am I. More than half of our city's twelve high schools are on the state's high priority list due, in large part, to less than 90 percent graduation rates, and the high school in our neighborhood is just a few years away from a comprehensive overhaul if it cannot demonstrate measurable improvement.

Our local paper recently ran an editorial calling upon school officials to "redouble" their efforts and start "thinking outside the box." Perhaps they should take a look at the reformulated schools in New York, Oregon, Boston, and elsewhere.

But my friend, who is active in local school politics, laments that the current climate created by No Child Left Behind, would make it hard to promote a fifth year of high school, at least in our community.

I agree. As long as arbitrary benchmarks, outcomes, and end-of-course tests are the only officially sanctioned measures of learning, it will be hard to convince the public to bankroll a school that treats learning as a process, not endpoint. Everyone is so brainwashed by the century-old, assembly line model of education.

The assembly-line mentality maintains a tight grip, even on those who benefit from progressive reforms. I was saddened by the story of 21-year-old Camry Petillo in Queens who "finished" her program in June but decided not to attend her graduation: “I didn’t feel like I had a lot to celebrate,” she said. “I knew I should have been up there years ago.”

And what about 19-year-old Sunil Ragoonath, who, after completing coursework this summer, said, "At last, I think I can say I'm done."

It's not him; it's the system that programmed him to think of education as a march toward a finish line.

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