The education of every child is vital for the well-being of any community. But if schools keep functioning the way they do now and communities do not support the schools that support them, then the prognosis may not be too good.
This was the message that education reform advocate Jamie Vollmer brought to his speech in the Montana State University-Northern Student Union Ballroom on Thursday night.
Nearly 100 people came to the event, coordinated by the Havre Public School Districts, to hear what Vollmer had to say. Most of the crowd were employees of the schools, but a dozen or two of the attendees were extracurricular community members there to listen and ask questions.
Vollmer began by explaining his background and how he came to hold the beliefs he now tours multiple countries to share.
He said he started by founding an ice cream company in Iowa, which ended up with him serving on the Iowa business and education roundtable.
He came into this position with three assumptions, he said: that public education is broken, that school employees are the problem and that if the schools just operated like any other business then everything would be better.
This belief was held and trumpeted around Iowa, mostly in front of local chambers of commerce who loved the message until he started meeting with actual education professionals.
One woman he spoke with during a teacher service day in Iowa finally put the problem in terms he could understand. She asked what he would do if his ice cream business received a shipment of blueberries that did not meet his company's standards. He said he would obviously send them back, and the teacher told him that they just don’t have that option.
“We have to take all of them. That’s why it’s not a business. It’s school, ” Vollmer recounted of the teacher words.
He realized that, unlike every other business, schools have no control over either the supply of product that they have to work with nor the revenue stream with which to do the work.
It was then that he realized only his first assumption held any water.
He then moved on to the problems built into the current school system, which was designed in the 1700s to weed out smart kids from the rest, to separate the genius from the rubbish, as Vollmer quoted Thomas Jefferson, founder of modern public schools.
He said part of the problem is that the public holds the education timeline as a constant, which makes the quality of education a variable. Because schools currently lump everyone together based solely on when they enter the school, the results end up varying wildly.
I. Q. tests, Vollmer said, were designed in the late 1800s for determining more of how well someone would do in school than actual intelligence. He argued that no one has ever proven a tie between how quickly a person learns and their actual intelligence.
But to make the kinds of changes necessary to bring schools into the 21st century, a larger shift has to occur.
He described a district in Kentucky that breaks for two weeks in October. The first week is used to help kids that may already be falling behind to catch up and also for enrichment programs for other kids. Then the second week is a vacation for everyone. He said the community, at first, demanded day care during that week of unexpected vacation, but since then, the community’s culture had shifted and people have gotten used to it, even scheduling discounted October Disney World trips.
“You can’t touch the schools of Havre without touching the culture of Havre, ” Vollmer said.
He described how much things have changed just in his own experience.
When he graduated from high school in 1967, he said, 77 percent of the work force was “unskilled or semi-skilled. ” Today that numbe is 13 percent and in five years will more than halve to 6 percent.
“We’ve got a school system pumping kids out like it’s ’67, ” Vollmer said. “When I graduated, dropouts had a place to drop in. ”
Vollmer warned the crowd that if changes aren’t made and districts aren’t adapted, the parents of the next generation would end up either caring for them for their entire lives or fearing them.
“If they don’t have somewhere to go, they will be desperate, ” Vollmer said, “and desperate people are dangerous. ”
This was shown, as he said, by several studies that show direct correlations between the academic performance of local schools and a community’s rates of crime, teen pregnancy, emergency room visits, not to mention the larger tax base formed by a better educated community.
But before any of these changes can be made, the community needs to get involved. And before that happens, Vollmer said the district would need four things from the community: understanding, trust, permission and support.
He held another meeting this morning with education professionals at Havre High School to discuss how to gain those four factors.
Part of the reason the change needs the support of the community is that schools have had responsibilities piled on them for the past century, many of which he listed at the meeting.
His list interested state Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, who lamented at the meeting the transformation of public school employees into social workers.
When she asked what could be done about it, Vollmer replied, “It would be nice if the community would take all of these non-academic responsibilities off their backs, but that’s not likely to happen. ”
After the meeting she said that she would like to see less state and federal mandates dictating how schools have to spend their funds and allow more autonomy at the district and school levels. She told Superintendent Andy Carlson that whenever she had talked about changes like these in the legislative session this spring, she would be shut down by the alliance of the Office of Public Instruction and the teacher’s unions.
“I am pilloried as the devil by the union, ” Hansen told Carlson.
“There are people in Helena that won’t let us talk about what’s going on on the ground and only talk money. It can’t just be a shouting match about needing more money but to allow you freedom with your money. ”
Carlson said it that he looks forward to working with and talking to the community about where to go in this process and how to proceed.
“The exciting part for me is when we start to look at this as a process and decide if that’s something we want to do, ” Carlson said. “I feel fortunate because we have a great community. We just need to continue and build on this, to understand that this is a process and not an event. ”
Both Carlson and Hansen are looking to set up public meetings in the next few months to further discuss the future of the school system with the community.