Jayne: Being principal for day good lesson in public education

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

I didn’t even get to suspend anybody.

Not that any students deserved to be suspended, but when Evergreen Public Schools recently invited me to be principal for the day at Frontier Middle School, I had visions of unfettered power. Dress codes. Silence in the halls. Suspensions for the unruly to teach them some respect.

Yet as I spent the morning with Principal Maria Stevens, what I got was an education. Oh, and a T-shirt — Go Silverbacks! The shirt was great; the education was more valuable. You see, public schools these days are much, much different than when I attended. You probably knew that already, as some have used those differences as proof that our public education is failing, and others use them as proof that schools are learning how to educate.

Regardless of where you fall upon the spectrum, it is striking to see the lengths to which schools go these days to mold education to the needs of students, rather than bending students to the needs of education. If you ask me, that’s a good thing. As somebody smarter than I once said, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

At Frontier, they offer a physics course for eighth-graders that provides class credit for high school; back in the day, I would have given my left foot to have such a course, instead of waiting until junior year to take physics. They have a course that uses advanced computer programs so students can design different items that they then construct — a really, really advanced version of the old metal shop. And they have a class for struggling students in which they were using video game methodology to teach math concepts.

There’s more, of course, but the gist is that school no longer is a one-size-fits-all endeavor, which probably is anathema to my old English teacher, who spent half the year on diagraming sentences.

What about Common Core?

Into the middle of this, of course, comes Common Core, a new set of education guidelines that some people think will be the death of civilization as we know it.

While most naysayers have offered nothing more than, “Aaaarrrrgggghhhh! Common Core! Nadafinga!” as their critique, George Will recently provided a well-articulated rebuke: “This is a thin end of an enormous wedge of federal power that will be wielded for the constant progressive purpose of concentrating power in Washington,” Will said. “The advocates of the Common Core say, ‘If you like local control of your schools, you can keep it, period. If you like your local curriculum you can keep it, period.’ And people don’t believe them for very good reasons.”

Well said. But in talking with Stevens, the Frontier principal, I also heard about some benefits to Common Core, and those benefits revolve around the changing nature of students.

“They have become skilled at consuming,” Stevens said. “Because of the information age, there’s so much content. The focus in Common Core is around skill sets rather than content. That’s a shift we have to make. What you know now isn’t what you’re going to know in two years. That’s what employers are looking for — how adaptable are you?

“You don’t use textbooks; they’re obsolete. The teachers look for materials, you read two or three things about a subject and have to be able to pick out the key information, because that’s what we do in the real world.”

All of which leaves me still having mixed feelings about Common Core. But while we can argue over the methodology, Stevens confirmed the primary benefit of the new standards: “They’re much more rigorous. They’re asking kids to do more than they’ve done in the past.”

It’s difficult to find fault with that. Common Core might not be the panacea some think it is, but it’s certainly not the devil that others contend. Which makes me eager to spend more time in today’s schools instead of relying upon demagoguery to inform my opinion. Even if I don’t get to suspend anybody.