Recently I joined a discussion in which local school superintendents, school board representatives, local business owners, and other citizens discussed the challenge of innovative instructional designs for their local schools. As one book title tells the story, there has been “So Much Reform, So Little Change” (Payne, 2008). And, frankly, some of the most significant change that has occurred has not been an improvement for students. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is a dismal failure for many students. There may be far more children left behind under this congressionally-mandated system of accountability than ever occurred with local systems of sensible achievement goals. Many of our most successful schools have long recognized there is far more to education than the numbers on national or state tests could ever capture. What we have now is a system focus designed by Congress, rather than local communities. It is a system that simply ignores or skims over the teaching of important topics and activities, because these are “not on the test.”
Like the design of Wright’s iconic homes, the design of local schools should fit the environment and reflect the values of the owners. In fact, like a Wright home, the local school should be an integral part of the local community. Every vital community knows that.
The discussion I joined was not on funding, taxes, school buildings, or national standardized tests. The entire discussion was on how a school district or group of neighboring districts could increase its focus on the needs for success of each student. Local realities, local sensibilities, local resources, local engagement, and the support of every segment of the local community are important factors in building schools that focus on students. Education is ultimately local. The best education is local and personal. The fear is that we are quickly moving to a national and impersonal system that emphasizes test scores of schools or districts, rather than the personal growth of individual students.
As I looked around the room of business men and women, parent and community organizations, politicians, local college professors, superintendents, and school board members — all exploring the design of a new approach to schooling, I thought of the beautiful structures that Frank Lloyd Wright designed. Many of his designs were based on the belief that homes should appear to be part of the natural landscape — rising from the local setting, instead of being “transplanted” from somewhere else. It is the way more of us should view our schools.
This was a meeting that was about instruction and learning. What was refreshing was the intense interest of these members of a broad community coming together to find a refocus for their individual schools. Unfortunately, the national chase for competitive test scores has often pushed aside important aspects of a broad education.
When I was in school, there was usually some class hotshot who would always ask “Will this stuff be on the test?” Apparently, these same people now set state and national policy. One of the great strengths of the American school has always been its local roots — its connection to the interests and care of the community and its interest in the individual success of every student. Talk with your local teachers and principals about the pressure to narrow the curriculum to only those subjects that are on state or national tests. Most American schools are still local and personal. Ask your local school board members to keep it that way. It matters for our students.
Craig R. Christiansen, Executive Director, Nebraska State Education Association. Founded in August 1867, the union has 28,000 members stastewide.