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Guest column | Carl Zimmermann

We must reinvent the public school model

Our education system is failing. It's not a secret. Despite the FCAT, remedial reading classes, rigorous curricula, legislation that demands higher math classes, charter schools, vouchers, and even threats of more or longer school days, we have been sliding faster than glaciers have been melting. Yet all anybody seems to come up with is to demand more, threaten repercussions and turn management problems over to the local schools.

The real problem is that the 160-year-old public school model is obsolete, and it's time we reinvent it.

We have been delivering education the same way since public education began in the mid 1800s. The teacher lectures, and the students listen. That was more than sufficient when people grew their own food and didn't have to worry about selling their skills and talents in order to survive. But the world has changed.

We want everyone to go to college. If you can't afford it, there are subsidies; if you work hard, there are scholarships. And if nothing else, there are loans. Yet only about 20 percent of the students who enter ninth grade will get a four-year degree. Only about 20 percent of them will work in the field they get their degree in.

For the 80 percent of students who won't get a four-year degree, what has high school prepared them for? The vast majority have no practical business experience. They don't know the psychology of sales. They don't know bookkeeping, manufacturing, nursing, mechanics, management, advertising or just about any other field where someone can make a living. High school has prepared them to either go to college or go fish. This isn't the teachers' fault. Every teacher I know works hard and wants students to succeed. It is the system.

We need to take a fresh look at what we want to accomplish for our children, what will engage them in the process and what will help them succeed even if they don't go to college. We still need to turn out good, ethical citizens who can read, write and do the math they need to be successful. We need to prepare the next generation for life.

Here's a fact for the legislators who think mandating higher-level math courses is somehow going to improve education: More than 90 percent of the people in this country will never use math beyond basic algebra. Half of those who do are engineers and scientists, who seem to innately seek out that information. The rest may have failed math in high school, but learn it on the job in weeks as tile layers, carpenters and builders — the backbone of this nation. Why are they able to learn this knowledge on the job but not in class? Because "on the job" is applied education.

It is wonderful to enjoy literature, to know how to figure out the height of a building by the length of the shadow it casts, or to understand action versus reaction, but it means so much more when it is applied in a meaningful way to the student.

Academies are working examples. There are engineering academies that require advanced math, agriculture academies, criminal justice academies, journalism academies, theatrical academies, etc. They use the students' avocational interests to add meaning to the knowledge and skills they need. This works just as well for college-bound students as it does for the other 80 percent. They can sample a field and get the starter skills they need to enter the workforce in a career should they not succeed in college.

We build schools that cost $30 to $50 million each and corral as many as 2,500 students in one facility — 5,000 in Miami — with tremendous operating costs. Yet under the academy model, industrial and retail properties can create a working environment, cost considerably less and be sold when necessary. And academies can create a product, enhancing a real world education and maybe even generating money. They can offer businesses apprentices or interns where both groups can benefit.

To reinvent education, we need to rethink our goals. In economic times like these, we need to make sure this generation is ready to work.

Carl Zimmermann is a six-time teacher of the year who established the award-winning television production program at Countryside High School in Clearwater. He was a candidate for Florida House District 48 in 2006 and 2008.

We must reinvent the public school model 06/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 12:48pm]

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