Smarter systems, not money, help schools


Last week, I wrote a little about Peyton Manning, his mastery of systems, and the Common Core State Standards. I pointed out that Common Core, while well-intentioned, is merely another iteration of the assumption that knowledge comes in nice little compartments. It’s the same assumption that most of the current American education system is based on.

But that’s not how the brain works. “Smart,” Ed Psych professors tell me, is being able to make connections and see how disparate bits of information link together into a unified whole. Marion Brady champions a type of education based on systems theory, which links all the individual subjects under an umbrella of intersecting uses of knowledge — a unified whole. The great thing is, we know this idea works: D’Evelyn Middle/High School uses a curricular design that is integrated horizontally. According to Terry Elliot, former D’Evelyn Principal, a ninth-grade social studies teacher can make reference to the novel “Siddhartha” while studying Indian geography, knowing that the students will have read that novel in their English class. Such a design creates a richer, deeper context of learning for the students, which helps both comprehension and retention. And, as exhibit A for this strategy, D’Evelyn was recently recognized as one of America’s Top Schools by U.S. News and World Report.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to test an umbrella; “systems” don’t make for easy to implement computer-based testing regimes; and the need to “do something” overrides the difficult discussions of design and system. And so Common Core becomes the default curriculum of the land.

And at the same time, you are being asked to vote to give an additional $1 billion a year to education through Amendment 66. It’s being sold in a well-funded advertising campaign as a “small price to pay” for continued gym classes, and more teacher’s aides in the classroom, and reviving music programs, and the like. Some people will remember just 8 years ago when Referendum C was on the ballot, and was being pushed for just such benefits.

At the time, I described it as a “$3 billion fix for an $800 million problem,” but it passed, so everything should have been hunky dorey, right? But here we are again, less than a decade later, being asked to hand out $1 billion per year.

As usual, there are those who have pointed out problems with 66, among them the funding formula which returns to Jefferson County Schools just 56 cents for every dollar collected from Jeffco taxpayers. But, again, that mechanism is just a tree; the forest is this: is $1 billion a year going to get us a better system, or does it just prop up the same old system? Ask yourself, the next time you see one of those very clever ads, are the gym classes relating cardiovascular activity to cellular biology and the physics of work and energy? Are the music students linking the Baroque style of Bach to the flourishes of Gothic architecture and the intellectuals of the Enlightenment? In other words, are we getting a better system?

I know that Amendment 66 is not explicitly about Common Core, but they are linked as functional parts of a system. And that system, even with all the tweaks and tests and taxes added over the years, is not serving our children very well.

So the question you have to ask yourself, as you cast your ballot in a few weeks, is this: are our politicians and bureaucrats enough like Peyton Manning to make this system work for a mere one billion dollars?

Michael Alcorn is a music teacher and fitness instructor who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. He graduated from Alameda High School and the University of Colorado-Boulder.


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