August 18, 2013

Innovative ideas should be the norm

Paul Grasso, Just Sayin'

---- — My column two weeks ago on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) generated a lot more response than I thought warranted; not that there was a whole lotta response, just more than I normally receive.

For example, I heard from two school principals, one who gave me a gold star for my position on the NCLB and one who wanted to give me two weeks detention for my “snide comment” about the 180-day work year.

At the risk of having to write “I will not make fun of teachers” 100 times, neatly, in cursive, in ink, I will continue the education theme.

Much has been written about how American schools are failing and how American students are falling behind those of other developed countries. Every year, just like Punxsutawney Phil, some organization or other pops out of their hole and releases a report on how poorly our nation’s schools are doing.

Moreover, it seems, each report is just a little worse than the one preceding it.

Just this week, this newspaper ran a story on how 70 percent of New York’s third- through eighth-graders are not proficient in English language arts and math. What surprised me was that State Education Department (SED) officials forewarned us that the test results would be bad because of “newly implemented state standards.”

News flash: We weren’t doing all that well before the newly implemented standards.

So now we have yet another new set of standards to gauge student success, or lack thereof. It seems that there have been many programs aimed at improving educational outcomes and many standards to evaluate that success, or lack thereof.

Some of those programs were successful, School-to-Work, for example.

Conceived by then-President Bill Clinton, School-to-Work was a response to criticism about the failing American education system. The president’s goal was to “make education relevant to students’ future careers, adapt instruction to the ways in which students learn best, and ensure that students learn the habits and skills that employers value.”

Proponents hoped to engage the interest and intellect of students and help them learn more effectively by adding meaningful context from the world of work.

In other words, students learn most effectively when taught skills in the context in which they will use those skills, otherwise known as work-based learning.

One aspect of School-to-Work that I liked was that it encouraged schools to develop models that worked best for their particular situations. One size did not fit all under School-to-Work.

By most accounts, School-to-Work was successful. Students earned better grades, had better retention and dropped out at lower rates. Unfortunately, when the funding ended, so did School-to-Work.

P-TECH is the educational program currently in vogue. The only P-TECH in New York is in Brooklyn, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to start 10 more throughout the state.

The acronym P-TECH stands for “Pathways in Technology Early College High School.” The program allows students to earn a high-school diploma and an associate’s degree in six years. It’s a collaboration among New York City public schools, IBM and the City University of New York. The program focuses on jobs in the information-technology industry, but the model can be adapted for other sectors.

P-TECH’s goals are similar to those of School-to-Work, to graduate students with the occupational and soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

I like P-TECH and I liked School-to-Work.

I understand why those models work, rigorous curricula and high expectations of both students and faculty. What I don’t understand is why either has to be a program separate from the “traditional education system,” which by all accounts doesn’t work.

What I don’t understand is why the components of programs that do work aren’t simply incorporated into the “traditional education system,” which isn’t working.

When asked why they ended their School-to-Work programs, most administrators said, “When the funding ended we no longer could afford to run the program.”

For me, it begged the question, “why not just change what we fund and change the way we teach?” Why do innovative, successful programs have to be overlaid on a system that doesn’t work?

Simply fund what works and stop funding what doesn’t.

We need to fund an education system that provides a quality education to all students, not just those in innovative programs.

Will P-TECH suffer a fate similar to School-to-Work?

I hope not.

Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation of Plattsburgh.