Yesterday, I spent some time discussing the direction of public schools, and the reduced emphasis on the arts, with a colleague. The current obsession with accountability, for students and teachers, creates a vicious cycle that defines non-tested subjects as expendable. I believe that many of these “expendable” subjects play a critical role in the development of empathy, problem solving, and creativity (see Is Music the Key to Success). These so-called “soft” skills are precisely what our society needs (see The World Needs More Social Entrepreneurs), but are often the first casualties of the accountability culture. Ursala Le Guin has said that, “The creative adult is the child who has survived.” In many cases, this appears to be the sad reality.
So, as I consider our incredibly diverse (economically, ethnically, and academically) junior high school, I wonder how we go about creating a school that fosters the development of critical soft skills within the constraints of the current system — the reality of required state assessments and teacher evaluation, the necessity of meeting the needs of all of the students who come through our doors, and severe limitations related to staffing and funding.
I’m really not satisfied with the status quo, and falling victim to accountability measures that drive decisions contrary to the best interest of students. So as I consider how we might do things differently, here are some of the questions that come to mind:
- Do junior high students need seventy minutes of mathematics every day? Years ago, our district adopted a schedule that increased all classes to seventy minutes in length and reduced our school day to five periods. This essentially cut elective time in half. This was done in an effort to improve mathematics scores on state tests, but it severely limits our scheduling options.
- How do you provide effective interventions for struggling students (we have many) without severely reducing, or eliminating, their opportunities for exposure to the arts, technology, physical education, etc.?
- With significant academic disparity within a given classroom, how do you engage all students in work that is meaningful, challenging, and engaging? We honestly have classes where approximately fifty percent of our students are below grade level in a given subject.
- Can a public school be all things to all students? Is it possible to be strong in the arts, sciences, mathematics, social sciences and provide the soft skill development that students need to succeed, and be difference makers, in the world?
I know great things are happening in many public schools. I also know there are some very innovative thinkers in the magnet, and charter, sectors. I look at the work of Chris Lehman, and the staff, at Science Leadership Academy, in Philadelphia, and I wonder how that model might be applied to a public junior high school in Arizona. Is it possible to create that kind of learning environment within the funding and accountability constraints of our current system?
I would love to hear your ideas, suggestions, and experiences. Point me in the right direction