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From the Publisher's Desk...

SCHOOLS ARE A PRIORITY BUT ARE WE TEACHING STUDENTS HOW TO REALLY THINK?

As we conclude yet another year’s worth of monthly issues and anticipate the start of Volume 42 with the July issue –- the first that will be exclusively on-line but with the same “look” continued in PDF form (just as has been available for the past 10 years in our archive at www.intowner.com) –- we realize that we have expounded our views in this space for the past 27 years since we took over from this newspaper’s founder, John J. Schulter.

Much has changed in the neighborhoods that are the focus of our reporting as well as throughout the city at-large, mostly for the better. But so many of the old problems remain -– poverty, substandard housing, greedy landlords, crime, serious unemployment and under-employment, young people lacking the necessary education and skills to succeed in the ever more complex world of work.

And, as always, the same questions and debates churn. What should be our priorities? How should public moneys be allocated? What are the best ways to accomplish goals that most citizens agree are important and need attention? But what are those goals? To that last question, there does not always seem to be consensus.

Everyone, we believe, agrees that education is a major priority. But there does not seem to be agreement as to what is the best way to achieve educational excellence that will produce young people who will be truly employable and, maybe even more critical, intellectually prepared to exercise their responsibility as citizens to ensure the continued viability of our system of democratic government.

This last concern is not, in our opinion, being addressed by the over-emphasis on test scores. This mania for passing standardized tests stifles creative learning and intellectual exploration which is what students need to be encouraged to pursue rather than spending inordinate amounts of time basically doing nothing more than prepping for tests. Are we really doing the right thing by turning our schools into test prep clinics rather than elevating them to true centers of learning?

To have teacher performance based so heavily on test scores achieved by students totally wipes out the motivation for teachers to serve as mentors guiding students toward developing true intellectual curiosity and a thirst for knowledge beyond the rote thought processes that are the hallmark of cramming for tests. What the emphasis on test performance does is deaden the mind and leaves no time for the kind of curricula that children and young students need in order to develop into truly thoughtful persons who can analyze and articulate problems, who can understand complex issues, and participate in society as truly educated citizens.

Now, this is not to suggest that we are advocating that schools all be turned into academies of Socratic dialogue or anything like that. No, all we are saying is that the schools need to emphasize actual teaching and the excitement of learning and not test prep. Further, we must find a way to break out of the narrow confines of drilling the fundamentals to the detriment of the arts and humanities and subject matter beyond the “three Rs.” Bring back art and music education –- exposure to these have long been proven to be of immense value for developing the mind; they are not “frills” by any means. Bring back phys ed. Again, it has long been proven that young students’ learning benefits greatly when phys ed is an integral part of the school day.

But we must also reconsider the role of vocational education. DC once had terrific vocational high schools, but years ago they pretty much disappeared. Not every student aspires to a life of “white collar” work. The trades and vocations are exciting and rewarding for vast numbers of young people and we need to open up opportunities through more schools that will serve their aspirations. The city has made some progress in this regard, especially in the area of hospitality and culinary arts and also technology. But much more needs to be provided. This will not only serve the needs of students who hunger for those educational opportunities but it will be a big help in developing a home-based, highly skilled pool of workers who can provide the skilled labor that now seems to always be brought in from elsewhere.

Well, we have only scratched the surface of a highly complex problem. But one thing is certain, that so long as the bitter adversarial relationship between the teachers in the DC schools and the Chancellor and her people continues it really won’t matter much if test scores go up a tad or school buildings get cleaned up or rebuilt. Until there is a true partnership between those warring sides the students will continue to be left in the dust.