This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Jamie Vollmer speak. He is the author of “Schools Cannot Do It Alone.” Readers may remember him better for “The Blueberry Story” that appeared in this column about a year ago.
Mr. Vollmer is a tireless advocate for public schools, but he did not start out that way. He was once a successful business man who was a harsh critic. He has spent 20 years working with educators and becoming a trusted partner.
One of the things Mr. Vollmer said that people often say to him is, “All the schools need to do is get back to the basics and teach what they taught when I was in school. That worked for me.” But he pointed out that while there is some truth to that, there are also problems. For one thing, there have been many changes since some of us were in school and the world for which we are preparing students is not the same as when we went to school. Also, the schools we attended were not necessarily what we remember them to be.
Mr. Vollmer shared a list with us that describes the changes that have taken place over the past 100 years. He said that at the beginning of the 20th century America’s leaders saw public schools as the logical place to select and sort young people, according to the needs of the industrial age and at that time we began to shift non-academic duties to the schools. From 1910 to 1940, vocational education, home economics, physical education and school transportation were added. In the 1950s, science and math education were greatly expanded, foreign language requirements were strengthened, fire and tornado drills became compulsory and sex education was introduced.
Head Start, bilingual education, advanced placement programs, adult education, consumer education, career education, peace studies and leisure and recreation were added in the 1960s. In the 1990s, the World Wide Web was born, and in the 21st century, the emergence of an increasingly global workforce added Internet safety, bullying prevention, lessons in texting and social media, expanded early childhood wrap around programs, financial literacy, and online learning requirements to name only a few of a long list of topics added to the burden of educators.
Mr. Vollmer pointed out that we have not added a single minute to the school calendar in six decades, and each year the burden grows. These comments follow the discussion in this column last week about whether we need to change the school year. The message I brought home from his talk was that the world has changed in the past 100 years. The expectations of educators have increased substantially to address new issues. The United States is the first country in the world to undertake educating all children. But too often this is ignored. To quote Mr. Vollmer, “The contract between our communities and our schools has changed … social and economic conditions demand that we unfold the full potential of every child. Our futures are tied to their success as never before, whether or not we have children in school.”
I would add that it is time that we stop bashing educators. It is time that we insist that policymakers recognize these changes and work with local communities to create the schools that are needed to meet these challenges. It is time to return some control to local schools to allow them to meet the unique needs of their student population. As Mr.Vollmer says, “The farther away the decisions are made, the dumber they are.” Local educators must be accountable, but they also must be given the tools and flexibility they need, and they must be trusted to use them. The schools cannot do it alone. They need the support and the trust of the entire community.
Mr. Vollmer began and ended his talk by saying, “I hear people say that we have to educate all children. When I hear that I have to ask, do you really mean it? Because if you do there is lots of work to be done.” He ended his talk by asking one last time, “Do you really mean it?” That is the question we all really need to answer.
Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.