My Turn: Modest proposal for our schools

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Under the guidance of my two dedicated and caring mentors at Juneau-Douglas High School, I have spent my first semester as a Master of Arts in Teaching candidate. This involves leading discussions; assigning and grading essays; inspiring creative writing; introducing students to new essays, novels, poems and plays; and encouraging critical thinking. Most important, I have been learning how to use all of these methods to empower students to shape their own opinions, to communicate effectively and to discover who they are.

However, even as I have been learning to be this kind of teacher, the Juneau School District has been struggling to cut expenses. Money is tight in Juneau's schools, and the state - wisely placing the building of roads above the education of Alaska children - cannot help. Therefore, the district has decided to cut 26 teachers by next fall. Teachers are angry and sad. They are mourning a system that does not understand what they are trying to do, and that does not recognize teachers cannot lead, assign, inspire, introduce and encourage in classrooms packed with 38 students with a full-time load of almost 200.

But Juneau's teachers are failing to see what is clear to this graduate student: That the Juneau School District's budgetary cuts are the crucial first steps of a timely and necessary revolution in education. These are first steps towards a way to give all of Alaska's teenagers a standardized, measurable education without paying a single full-time teacher or maintaining a single high school building.

My proposal to Governor Murkowski: Take what Juneau has done and go further. Instead of asking districts like Juneau's to cut teachers and increase class, cut all Alaska secondary teachers except for four: one each from English, science, math and history. Pay each of these teachers a part-time salary to teach lessons to a videotape recorder and then broadcast these lessons across the state on TV. The benefits of this would be manifold:

1) High school buildings would no longer be necessary, as each teacher would record his/her lessons at home and teenagers would watch the lessons in their living rooms. In Juneau, CBJ could remodel the classrooms into hotel rooms; tourists will be thrilled to spend a night or two in rooms that once housed the antiquated method of "student-centered" teaching.

2) Parents would no longer have to waste energy nagging their teenagers to stop watching TV. In fact, the televised curriculum would encourage students to watch more TV, carefully incorporating soap operas like "Days of Our Lives," cartoons like "Sponge Bob," and ads for Coca-Cola and the Gap into lessons.

3) Teenagers would be forced to take responsibility for their own success in the educational system. No teachers would be phoning home about absences, no truancy officers would be searching the cemetery for missing students - the students would be responsible for flipping on the TV all by themselves.

4) Homework would be eliminated, allowing students to spend more of their valuable time practicing to win football playoffs or learning how to make a #3 at McDonald's.

Some will argue that a system in which instruction is relegated to a television set would render learning meaningless and irrelevant. But President Bush's brilliant "No Child Left Behind" Act has convinced me that the only valid learning is learning that can be tested quantitatively, in standardized tests. In this system, all students would be tested online in a series of standardized tests. Teenagers would learn nothing the curriculum writers did not want them to learn. No teenager would waste time comparing the American health care system to the Canadian system, nor would they learn how to question the ethics of a law, or how to determine the validity of a newspaper article or how to test local water quality. They would learn English, history, science and math. I cannot imagine a more equal, more standardized system.

But most important in this era of international terrorism, when American citizens are in danger both at home and abroad, this system would eradicate the dangerous skill of critical thinking. The four teachers broadcasting their lessons to Alaska's teenagers will not - cannot - lead risky discussions that encourage free and divergent thinking. Alaska would quickly gain a national reputation as a state that produces young people who unquestioningly accept everything they are told - exactly the caliber of loyal American citizens we need most in these uncertain times.

The Juneau School District has already taken the first steps towards this overhaul of our increasingly ineffective school system. The state of Alaska needs to receive the torch and complete the revolution. Education must no longer teach students to think and discuss. It must crank out young adults who can recite the countries the U.S. has liberated, calculate the price of oil, and read People magazine. In other words, it must produce Americans who are demonstrably more knowledgeable than the citizens of France.

What will happen to the 100 teachers who are cut in Juneau? The tourist industry will hire them. It is certainly preferable to hire someone who is adept at leading, assigning, inspiring, introducing and encouraging than a 20-year-old from the Lower 48 who must be trained.

And what about my Master of Arts in Teaching program? It will become obsolete, of course. But I am certain UAS will quickly turn it into a Master of Arts in Technology program. All of those televisions will need maintenance.

• Sarah J.H. Brooks is a Master of Arts in Teaching program participant who lives in Juneau.



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