Leo Morris: Watch out: They’re rethinking school


No sentence should strike more fear into the hearts of Hoosier parents than this one, variations of which have appeared in numerous recent news stories:

“Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said a top priority for House Republicans is to ‘re-invent’ high school, so that students can work and use job-based opportunities to receive credit toward graduation.”

I’d love to list all the things high schools do well and poorly so I could fairly judge legislative attempts to ‘fix” the situation. But the truth is that I would be basing my judgment on what high school was like 50 years ago, and I have no idea how well that equates to what is going on in today’s classrooms.

I remember being partly inspired, frequently bored and sometimes terrified for those four years, and I know I have spent a lifetime since romanticizing the good parts and mentally burying the unpleasant parts. It is probably true that most of us never really get over high school.

It is certainly true for legislators, who assumed more and more authority over what was meant to be a local endeavor and have spent decades tinkering with the system in a never-ending attempt to keep repairing what they’ve kept breaking. Anyone who expects the General Assembly to approach the task with humility and caution has not been paying attention.

It is more likely to just blunder ahead in arrogant assurance.

Just consider the very premise on which the presumed need for change is based: Too much emphasis on college preparation, not enough on marketable job skills. Huston says schools need to ditch subjects like calculus and replace them “work-based learning.” Like what?

That’s a debate that has been going on since at least my time in high school, when typing was added so that some students could go sweat in office pools instead of in factories alongside the students who took mostly shop classes. Specific skills for specific jobs multiply and divide by the thousands, too quickly for schools to keep up, but the need remains constant for reading, writing and math skills and a basic understanding of the way the world works.

And if our schools are over-emphasizing college prep, they haven’t been doing a very good job of it. Fewer than half of Hoosiers have an associate degree or high-quality credential, according to an Indiana Chamber of Commerce report, ranking the state 37th in the nation. Only 89.6 percent of students graduate after four years of high school; only 43.3 percent of that number go on to college, and only 22.8 percent of that group complete college.

If that’s how well we do while focusing on college prep, what kind of results can we expect when job readiness is the focus?

As the legislature studies the issue – if it studies the issue – it could do worse than considering the Amish.

You have to admire their approach to education, even if you don’t like their simple, unworldly life. They generally teach their students through the eighth grade, giving them basic skills and a smattering of subjects like history, geography and science, enough that they can both participate in their communities and deal with the outside world. After that, they go out among other Amish and learn Amish ways as they go along.

The Amish know who they are and what they want, and their education system is designed to pass that community’s values along to the next generation. Whether we agree with their goals and objectives, we could learn a lot from that focus and commitment. Amish parents know very well what goes on in their classrooms.

How many Americans today can honestly say that, even the ones caught up in the passions of today’s hot-button education debates like race and gender and sexuality and environmentalism?

If I had school-age children, I would certainly make it my business to know before I turned them over to the whims of a reckless legislature. If I didn’t like what the public schools were doing, I’d check some of the options in the “school choice” market offered by the state. But I’d probably feel a little trepidation there, too, like I was jumping on a life raft of uncertain stability provided by the very people who had drilled holes in the ship in the first place.

I might end up becoming one of the parents who have been joining the home school movement in droves in recent years. It costs them less than farming out the education, and their children outperform their contemporaries academically and in the workforce.

A lot more of us may become more like the Amish before the legislature is done.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].

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