The War for Education

These are some pretty heady times for primary education. The Obama administration rolled out its “Race to the Top” program to improve primary education, while, along with Congress, he virtually terminated a promising voucher program in Washington D.C. The citizens of Arizona voted to keep the “First Things First” program. The state legislature has outlawed the controversial “Ethnic Studies” program in the Tucson Unified School District, to which some teachers have responded with a lawsuit.

As I look at the battles, I am saddened to see that many of the participants do not simply disagree on policy, they seem to live in different worlds. In one world, “Ethnic Studies” promotes inclusion of Latino students while increasing their academic success, while in the other, Latino students are cut out of the rest of the students and taught separatism, and anti-Americanism. In one world, “First Things First” as a valuable preparation for kindergarten and beyond, while in the other it is a way to warehouse children of middle-class mom’s who prefer to go to Yoga class at the expense of the economically disadvantaged.

No progress toward some kind of resolution can be made without some common ground.

I decided, therefore, to avoid the fracas and try to gather some inside information from someone in the field. In these days of networking, I decided to check my address book and found a Democrat friend of near thirty years who runs an “Excelling” charter school in Tucson. His name is Gurumeet Khalsa and he is a director of the Khalsa Montessori Charter School. I’d like to reiterate that I’m presenting one educator’s ideas, not arguing for or against charter schools here.

Mr. Khalsa describes himself as an “education radical”, much of his thinking is indeed outside the traditional box.

The Montessori method itself, as he described it to me, is a departure from the traditional methods which “came out of the industrial age of the 1800’s when it was convenient to do that for political reasons and for reasons of scale”, referring to everybody doing the sme thing at the same time. The Montessori method focuses on the individual child who progresses at his own rate, with his own study plan. The teaching “follows the child.”

Mr. Kalsa is not a big fan of standardized testing, including AIMS. “Good test results doesn’t mean that they are getting educated. It means that they are able to regurgitate facts and take the silly little bubble tests.” He also mentioned that, “US News called University High School the best high school in the world, and the state of Arizona said it was a failing school – all in the same year.” He added, “They don’t judge character, they don’t judge artistic values, they don’t judge critical thinking, it’s quite a poor test they give the kids.”

I asked if there could be any valid measurement devices for kids or schools. He said that parents really must be involved with the school. He put the issue in perspective this way, “Everybody wants insurance in our society, everybody wants Social Security, everybody wants insurance, everybody wants to be taken care of, nobody wants to have any faults, and that’s what we’re stuck with. No risk.” He added that touring professionals would be helpful in rating schools, “but they would have their own biases about what they think a school should look like.” He said that parental participation is very high in his school, and the school encourages it. Some parents actually withdraw their children from the school because they ask them to participate too much.

Mr. Kalsa is big on school choice. “We have hundreds of millions of people in our country and I don’t think that they are all going to go in one direction. I think sometimes that the people who really squawk about it perhaps have a monetary stake in it, they don’t want to see parents have a choice. I think it’s important that families have a choice in what they want to do.”

Now, I disagree with my friend on many of his points, on some I agree. I was a bit surprised at some of common ground we shared, and that some of his perspectives were new to me.

We really should openly discuss ideas more before we draw the battle lines in the war for education.

At one point I asked Gurumeet, “So how’s your football program coming?” We both had a laugh.