Editor’s Note: Second of a two-part commentary. Read part one, including a recap of the previous school year, here.
Challenges and Work Moving Forward:
Challenges are many and the road to becoming and staying a truly great school system is unending. Progress is hard won and sustaining gains in an enterprise where the work is done by human beings and where even the “products” themselves are human beings is never going to be easy. I will discuss a few that are high on our list of priorities.
Reducing the number of students who must be retained or held back in a grade is important for a number of reasons.
For now, retention is necessary. Sending a child to the next grade level when he or she has not mastered the content required to succeed at that level is a disservice to the child, as well as the other children in that grade. The problem is that retention is quite often an ineffective way to increase student learning and it is clearly an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars. It costs about $8,600 per year to educate a child (including buildings, energy, transportation, maintenance, staff salaries, and management) in Bullitt County. While this is quite low in comparison to most other school systems, it is still a lot of money. If a child is held back, tack another year’s cost onto the total bill for an elementary and secondary education.
Aside from the money, research shows that retaining a student, especially in upper grades, decreases the chance the child will graduate.
Retain a student two times or more, and a drop-out becomes all but certain. The child that doesn’t complete high school becomes the adult that earns lower wages than their fellow citizens, is more likely to commit crime and go to jail, more likely to need public assistance, and is less likely to be able to help pay the cost of civil society.
Add to those negatives the fact that, often, the child doesn’t do much better the next year and one can see that it is a lose-lose-lose situation. The student who doesn’t do the work of learning may “learn a lesson,” but it is a very expensive lesson for everyone involved, both in money and unintended consequences.
A better, more cost-efficient way to deal with students who do not master the material must be developed. We must understand and accept that some children just learn more slowly than others. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with their brains; it is just a fact of life that people mature at different rates. Some kids are very short until they are 17 or 18 years old, then they sprout up. Any 3rd grade class will have kids of all sizes, though they are the same age. Why should we expect every kid to function at the same mental level just because they happen to all be 8 years old?
The bottom line is that some children need more time to learn.
Wouldn’t it be a good investment to spend some extra money to provide more time during evenings, weekends, or summers so a child wouldn’t need to repeat an entire year of the same instruction?
If it keeps a child on track to graduation, it would save resources in the long term. The problem we will tackle this year is to answer the question of what we should do, what we can do (legally and financially), and what we as a broad educational community have the will to do.
On the other side of the learning coin is the question of how we best serve our most academically gifted students.
These are the students who learn quite a bit faster than the average student. There are those in the field of education (and politics) who assert that these kids can take care of themselves, that we should just get out of their way and they can teach themselves.
I disagree, but more importantly, solid educational research indicates that we can do great harm to these students if we allow them to wallow in the normal curriculum and progress through it at the same pace as their same-age peers.
Human motivation thrives on appropriate challenge and if we don’t do enough to challenge these really academically smart kids, we are sending them the message that it is ok to be mentally lazy. For the sake of those kids and of our society in general, that is nearly the worst thing we could do. In no way am I saying that our school system is doing a bad job challenging gifted students.
In fact, with the expansion of our Advanced Placement programs, the Bullitt Advanced Math and Science program, the increased attention to partnerships for early college credit attainment, we are doing quite well at the upper grade levels. But, we need to take a look at what we can do better, especially in the elementary and middle schools. We need to challenge our own assumptions and past practices to see if what we currently do stands up to scrutiny. If we find that there are better ways to serve these kids than what we are currently doing, we must do whatever is necessary to make it better.
These are just two of the big challenges facing us as we strive for continuous improvement on the path to fulfilling our vision as the leader in educational excellence. There are plenty more, plus we must maintain and improve our efforts to communicate with our parents and community, to provide excellent customer service, and to serve as a resource to the community that supports what we do every day.
Without a doubt, the most serious challenge to implementing any of the recommendations that may come from our planning is funding, especially funding from the state. As much as our government leaders have tried to protect education during this recessionary period, they haven’t been able to do so. Inflation adjusted funding is lower than it was 4 years ago by about $6 million dollars and many expenses formerly paid by the state or other state agencies (retirement contributions, volunteer background checks, etc.) have been passed on to the local taxpayer. While we do a good job being good stewards of our funds, such as reallocating existing funds to reform and create innovative programs (like BAMS, CRC, Early College), there are limits to what we can do.
Understanding that these challenges and barriers exist should not be interpreted as excuses. We have made impressive progress these past five years in the face of the same issues and we do not intend to stop.
We (meaning all of us in Bullitt County) are blessed with a very talented group of educators in our classrooms and school offices, and they are supported by an excellent staff at the central office under the direction of a Board of Education strongly committed to improving the level of education in our community.
I look forward to any ideas or comments. I encourage you to communicate with any of us. Our web site is well organized and easy to use. I invite you to sign up for electronic newsletters from the district and any or all of our schools.
You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. District Assemblies are held each month to discuss items of interest to educators and citizens.
Board meetings are informative and open to the public.
We welcome your involvement and, as always, I thank you for your continued support of Bullitt County Public Schools.