Hitting Home

Good aim is required to defeat our Goliath education problems

Column by Michael Alcorn
Posted 7/26/17

In a past life, I coached a couple seasons of high school baseball. And, if you don't know baseball, you might not understand that, in baseball, we count EVERYTHING. Real baseball guys know batting …

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Hitting Home

Good aim is required to defeat our Goliath education problems

Posted

In a past life, I coached a couple seasons of high school baseball. And, if you don't know baseball, you might not understand that, in baseball, we count EVERYTHING. Real baseball guys know batting averages, walks, hits, strikeouts, sacrifice bunts - anything that can be assigned a number, is. Which is great, because, it turns out, my strength, as a coach, was digging in to those numbers and understanding patterns and trends. These days, that is called "advanced data;" back then, I was just trying to find a way to be useful.

But advanced data leads people to some pretty great ideas. In the movie "Moneyball," the General Manager of the Oakland A's, who was trying to field a competitive team with a cut-rate payroll, keeps asking his people "Are we asking the right questions?" He asked enough good questions to make the playoffs several years.

The right question is almost always the secret to the right solution. Take the story of David and Goliath: Popular culture has reduced that story to a very simple underdog story; your pastor would tell you that it's the story of a person having so much faith that they did not even see the problem in front of them. But Malcolm Gladwell, the brilliant author of "David and Goliath," explains it as a story of how artillery (the sling-a very accurate tool in the hands of a shepherd which achieves velocities of 40 m.p.h.) beats infantry (big, slow, strong) every time.

So, as we head into the great adventure that is a brand new school year, do you ever think about education policy and wonder if we are asking the right questions? One side of the aisle has answered every question over the last three decades by saying "testing." Of course, every time we change testing regimes (which we're doing again this year), we lose some longitudinal integrity in the data, so that data is less and less useful. And, really, after twenty-five years of testing, do we have any concrete evidence that the workforce has gotten any smarter or better prepared or more competent? No - actually, quite the opposite.

Of course, the other side of the aisle has worked for decades to turn the education system into their own sociological Petri dish, hoping to use a captive audience of public school children to effect societal transformation. In some ways, this is good, and has had great effect (think: civil rights movement); in other ways, this has been very bad for education, which is why we had to go to a testing regime and why we have charter schools in the first place.

But, what if the "right question" has nothing to do with testing aptitude or social attitudes? What if the right question has more to do with a society that understands its history, its freedoms, its potentials, and its responsibilities than it does its textbooks? What if the right question has more to do with finding talent and fostering potential than churning out a factory model of a student? What if the right question is more about having a productive job, understanding how money works, and managing a life than it is about the esoterica and minutiae that fleshes out "higher learning?"

The problems that we stare at as a society are substantial, and our myopic focus on partisan solutions tends to turn every obstacle into a Goliath. Wouldn't it be nice if, maybe, we approached the whole thing with the humility of a shepherd and looked for a better question rather than a political victory?

I know - crazy! But then, I, too, have been hit in the head by a few rocks in my life...

By the way, if you have a high school student in your life, you simply must read the third chapter of "David and Goliath." It will make you question everything your school counselors are telling you.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com

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Tom Coyne

Re: Your red-herring comment about testing. A thermometer doesn’t cure your fever. It tells you when your fever is cured. And in Jeffco, our school district's fever is certainly not cured.

Jeffco spends $1 billion taxpayer dollars each year on our school. But in 2016, only 32% of Jeffco 11th graders met all four college and career ready benchmarks on the ACT. In fact, Jeffco's student achievement results have basically been flat for more than a decade, even as the real bar for college and career readiness in our intensely competitive global economy has been rising exponentially. While Jeffco stands still, our kids are falling further and further behind.

But thanks to the Colorado TECDA law, it is practically impossible to remove ineffective teachers from our kids' classrooms. And now the teachers union wants Colorado taxpayers to bailout their pension problems.

Seriously?

Friday, July 28