Opinion: Becoming a 21st century school district in Mesa County, Colorado | PostIndependent.com

Opinion: Becoming a 21st century school district in Mesa County, Colorado

Dan Dougherty
Free Press Opinion Columnist

In the public education landscape of today, there are plenty of discussions about reforms designed to improve student performance. But, I believe, in the haste to present and cover the mechanics, cost, and political angles of these reforms, we have missed the epic task at hand. The nation is modernizing its public school systems, district by district, to be effective as 21st century schools. When considered collectively, each of the major reforms adds up to the first major overhaul of public education in a century.

The shift is important for our community to understand. The traditional school system — the one we all grew up in — was born out of the Industrial Revolution. It largely followed a factory model of production to impart the knowledge and skills needed for a manufacturing-based economy and job market. It was, and arguably still is, the best education system in the world at preparing children for adulthood and careers in manufacturing. Think about the focus on timeliness, students in neat rows of desks, transitioning from subject to subject to get an hours worth of instruction before moving on to the next stop. And the final whistle to signal the end of the day.

The change that American schools are struggling to adapt to is the rise of the Information Age. Manufacturing is increasingly de-emphasized (but still essentially important), with information and computerization driving the economy. The Information Age is a knowledge-based society supported by a high-tech global economy where information influences the manufacturing process and the service sector so they operate in efficient and convenient ways. Did that sink in like the instructions to program an old VCR? Another way of saying it is that almost every process today is shaped by computerization in some way.

In the Industrial Age, if you were good with machines, you had a lot of options for work, including on an assembly line. Today, you will likely be operating a computer that operates the machine, so you need a different skill set to do a similar task.

The challenge for the nation’s vast network of public schools is the need to adapt to the Information Age in order to adequately prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs. It’s a huge task. Public schools still operate under local control, though state and federal bureaucracies have considerable influence over their operations because they provide the funding. The federal government offers incentives and guidelines to trigger the change, the state government follows suit, and politicians make promises of improvement to get elected. Politicians introduce bills; bills become law; and local school boards end up implementing a series of complex reforms.

The reforms upset the status quo, and groups splinter to form battle lines in support or opposition to the change, until very slowly — often decades later — improvements begin to take hold. Some reform ideas are politically expedient, but lack any basis in research. Ironically, this is the antithesis of the Information Age — action without adequate information. Politically expedient ideas are simple to understand and logical on the surface, but difficult to implement and come with an abundance of unintended consequences.

Grand Junction, like all other districts in the state, finds itself in the midst of this evolution. But, we have a guiding light: Highly qualified educators and leaders who understand that we are renewing public schools to be effective in the Information Age. We can tie each reform to how it eventually benefits student outcomes and to the skills they will need for success as adults. From educator effectiveness to one-to-one technology ratios, it’s all about refining and adapting the system to meet the needs of the present and future. Even the transition in standardized tests from CSAP to TCAP to CMAS to PARCC is part of the evolution to continual and improved competitiveness for the community’s students.

But, it remains a monumental task, and one we can’t do alone. Now, more than ever, we need our community to understand and help us take this journey to benefit our collective children. We need your trust, your help, and your support. This monthly column will share District 51’s ideas and challenges to get the community back in touch with its schools. Rules, regulations, layers of complexities, and limited resources have pulled us apart. Let simple, direct, and open conversation bring us back together.

Free Press columnist Dan Dougherty is director of communications for School District 51: Mesa County Valley Schools. Comments and feedback are welcome at dan.dougherty@d51schools.org.

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