Normally, there’s a sense of new energy during the back-to-school season.
Starting a new school year means new classes, new clothes and lists of school supplies. It’s a standard marker of excited progress, going back generations.
But there’s a melancholy shadow darkening spirits as students start back at Weiner public schools. The return to classes this year marks not a beginning, but an ending. Weiner missed the state enrollment minimum and was ordered to consolidate.
In theory, the consolidation with the Harrisburg School District doesn’t require closure of the Weiner campus. In reality, its days are numbered.
If there’s a grander travesty in public education policy than shutting down a school with high test scores, strong parental and patron support, lower than average operating costs and a zero dropout rate, I don’t know what it is.
The sad episode is indicative of a much larger blight on Arkansas education, however, and that’s an inclination to look backward when policymakers should be looking ahead.
Arkansas is a rural state. Technology is transforming rural lives today much as electrification did in the middle of the last century. Few experiences today are anything like they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
Television offered a handful of channels then and hundreds now. Telephones of the past were hardwired and locked to locations. Today mobile phones are carried as ubiquitously as wallets and even smaller. Computers used to look like machines with floppy disks reminiscent of 45 records. No one under 40 can remember either, and the smallest processors can’t even be seen with the naked eye. Friends and families separated by distance connect and share and converse with one another instantly using e-mail and social websites.
And this digital age, in which everyone is creating content like texts,photos, blogs and more, has ushered in an exponential expansion of data. This year technology will allow Americans to create, consume and catalog more information than in all of human history combined. Next year will set another record.
Meanwhile, in the world of education, we keep reaching for yesterday’s stars. Just when studies are pointing to the success of smaller schools and analyses are exposing the myths of consolidation savings, what do we do? Close small schools in the name of economics. Why not insist on going back to old party-line phones to save money, too?
Arkansas has an embarrassing reputation as a backward state, and in education innovation we’re all too happy to overachieve in upholding it. At a time when state government ought to be leading the way in implementing broadband to connect our rural students and schools, it remains focused on the past’s low-tech methodology, like buses.
Rural schools should be benefiting from the technological revolution and a true Grade A effort would begin with the premise of how to educate a rural population.
Starting there, one of the worst plans, especially in the Internet age, would be to bus children to far-away schools. The only reason anybody wants to do that is because that’s what has always been done in other places that weren’t Arkansas.
An open-minded, honest assessment, the kind that sparks innovation, would first exhaust the possibility of bringing education to rural children. Why not transport teachers instead of children? Commutes to work are common and more preferable than kids languishing on long bus routes.
At the high school level, why not experiment with college-type M-W-F and T-Th classes that reduce the necessity of daily attendance by certain subject teachers?
Video conferencing is being utilized in the business world for training. Online college courses are booming. The Internet is a treasure trove of unimaginable proportions in its ability to expose students to different cultures, places, ideas.
The sad truth is, there are as many ways to teach children as there are to skin a cat, but nobody in charge at the Education Department seems willing to entertain, much less pursue, new or novel alternatives.
When Weiner and Delight proposed a long-distance administrative consolidation utilizing advanced, technology-based learning techniques so that both local campuses could remain open, the state Education Board summarily dismissed the notion, barely pretending to listen.
A head-in-the-sand approach typically leads to failure and extinction in a free market. In the protected monopoly of public education, failing school policies can linger like the undead inhorror movies. Have we become so comfortable with mediocrity?
Broadband is the future of education and buses are the past. Successful rural schools like Weiner should be laboratories of innovation for truly progressive learning that preserves the local community.
Presented with such a rich opportunity, it’s frustrating, if not surprising, that Arkansas’ literal response is to shut the doors on it.