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The Need For Educational Reform

The school year is quickly coming to a close. The annual May budget vote and school board elections have taken place. In our larger community, all school budgets passed with the exception of one school ...

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The school year is quickly coming to a close. The annual May budget vote and school board elections have taken place. In our larger community, all school budgets passed with the exception of one school district. Most school administrators, teachers and parents breathed a sigh of relief.

Over the last number of months, school districts around the state have been under the microscope. Double dipping and financial mismanagement have been the concern. School finances have always been a delicate issue in every community. Teacher salaries and administrative salaries have always been at the heart of controversy in many school districts.

Presently, one local school district has still not settled their teachers' contract. Those professional educators have worked for more than a year without a contract. There are many sides to why this contract has not been settled. The added problem is the unnecessary stress and distraction that this brings to that local school community and the unnecessary grief that is created for students in that school.

We can debate forever that teacher salaries are too exorbitant. However, we all know that an excellent teacher is worth his or her weight in gold. We want our teachers to be invested in our community, and that is a reasonable expectation. How can they be invested in our community if they cannot afford to live among us because their salaries are not adequate compensation for the work they do?

Good administrators should command good salaries. If they do their jobs well, they have tremendous responsibilities in our communities. They are responsible not only for students and competent teachers, but for developing the vision and direction of our school district. A good administrator sets the tone and quality of school life. He or she is responsible for maintaining a standard of academic excellence that is accessible to all students.

In the past year, schools across the state have come under greater scrutiny because of widespread fiscal mismanagement. All school districts should be held strictly accountable for the management of funds. However, in the attempt to be more fiscally accountable, school programs, teacher salaries and positions should not be compromised.

There is a real danger before us, as school districts attempt to clean up sloppy financial practices, that the important issues of education will get buried in political rhetoric. Further, there is the danger that this will cause us to be distracted from addressing the pressing issues of educating our children. Too many school boards are misguided. Some spend too much time trying to micromanage their superintendent and less time overseeing district finances, appropriate spending practices, maintenance of district buildings and supporting comprehensive programs that address the needs of all children within the district.

We hire superintendents at high salaries because we believe they possess the competence to guide and develop our school communities. Unfortunately, too often we tie their hands and do not allow them to do the job they were hired for. The same is true for teachers and building principals. They were hired to teach and to empower our children to greatness. How often have we shackled them with nonsense and prevented them from truly teaching?

Educational reform is desperately needed. Our system is antiquated and not centered around what is best for children. Our focus is misplaced. Standardized test scores are only one rather limited measure of a teacher's effectiveness and a student's success. Reading, writing and arithmetic are important, if they help our children to become more human and help them to develop the skills to navigate a worldly landscape that is not very loving and respectful of others.

Good teaching "cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher." (The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer) We have an abundance of exceptional teachers in many of our schools, but they are becoming increasingly discouraged because they are not allowed to teach. They are not allowed to share their passion for intellectual discovery and exploration.

We must purge our schools of those teachers who do not wish to teach, who have lost heart or who have possibly been burnt out. Eliminating tenure is not the answer. Tenure is a positive tool that should call those of us who teach to greater accountability, while securing our employment. It needs to be reformed, not eliminated. There are countless young, new, passionate teachers clamoring to have the opportunity to empower students to greatness. I am excited about the next generation of educators. I've been privileged to work with a number of them as they have prepared to enter the workforce. Their intellectual competence, passion for learning and commitment to the educational process is contagious. They're not becoming teachers because of all the perks and benefits, but rather for most, it's a vocation and they want to make a difference in young people's lives.

As school communities are attempting to be more fiscally accountable, some school communities are compromising academic excellence for the sake of saving money. Students with special needs are not being adequately serviced. Advanced placement classes and honor courses are being reduced. Technology opportunities are being limited. Class sizes are being increased and support staff that are vital to the livelihood of any school are being eliminated.

When a school district has fiscal difficulties, usually the first cuts are in special programs and support staff. Sometimes the special programs like music, art and technology make a difference in many students' lives. They may be the reason some students stay in school. Some of those programs are the reasons why some at risk students stay connected.

The profile of today's student versus the profile of a student ten or fifteen years ago is radically different. It is not unusual for a student to begin preschool with just one parent or possibly as a member of a blended or reconstructed family. As we know, because of technology, children today are visually exposed to so much more than ever before. They see and hear things at an early age that are most troubling. Substance abuse and addictive behavior are escalating. Mental illness is increasing. More and more families have little or no supervision at home when children get out of school. Who knows what they're exposed to during those periods.

So, it's very troubling to hear that some school districts, because of fiscal concerns, are reducing or eliminating support services. When money is tight, many school communities eliminate the school social worker, the nurse teacher, the attendance teacher and other support staff that help when students are in crisis.

In this day and age, those kinds of eliminations make a statement about what is important in a school community. How can we eliminate vital staff that support teachers with a growing number of students who are in crisis or at risk at any given moment?

Student violence, drug and alcohol abuse, addiction and suicide are approaching epidemic levels. Most of our schools who have participated in the Pride Survey were pretty shocked by their results. Every school year, our high schools are battling drug and alcohol overdoses, both on their campuses and in their neighborhoods. For the past five years, we have had at least one per high school. Recently, a senior girl took her life.

With these piercing facts, how could any school community think of eliminating vital support services as a response to a fiscal crisis? There is not a high school in a large community that is not battling these social issues on a daily basis. Some high schools are more effective than others in confronting these issues and supporting their students and their parents. Unfortunately, some other high schools are pretending that these issues don't exist on their campuses and choose not to confront these issues.

As we prepare for the end of school, we, as parents and teachers alike, must demand that our school community be accountable for protecting the quality of life of every one of our students, anything short of that is unconscionable!