While Wisconsin talked about consolidating school districts, cutting taxes and bashing education employees, the Irish rebuilt their economy by investing in teachers.
Keeping up with the Irish
As a nation, we are in danger of falling behind in education, and in a world as complex and interrelated at it is now, that is just not an acceptable option.
Many students in the rest of the world go to school year-round, six days a week, eight to ten hours a day. Many students in other countries study higher mathematics and multiple languages in the lower grades. Many students abroad have a full range of world-class arts programs available to coach them in creativity. Such programs cost money, and many countries are willing to spend whatever it takes.
There are experimental schools operating here in the United Sates that incorporate these innovations and more, and I have visited several of them. Google "experimental schools" and "KIPP schools" and see what you find.
In recent studies, students from the United States regularly rank below those in Japan, Finland and even Russia in basic categories. This is a challenge that we all must face. The competition our student graduates will face is not from Minnesota or California, it will be from India and China, to name the two most obvious.
As a local problem, sadly, it is about the money. The referenda to exceed budget caps in districts like Park Falls last year and Washburn this year are symptoms of a pervasive problem with school funding. About half of them fail, and there are districts that are now in imminent danger of total dissolution. Consolidation is a possible, partial remedy, if it suits the school districts involved, but it is not a general panacea by any means.
Some people believe the current system of school funding, revenue caps, and punitive measures for declining enrollment, is somehow good — that it is "fair and rests on sound economics and sound educational policy." Nonsense! Every reputable political leader and educator in the state knows, as do I, that the current system is a disaster, and something must be done about it sooner, rather than later. (Perhaps a new Legislature will take the necessary action?)
The story about what happened recently in Ireland is an instructive one: For many years, the Irish Republic was the basket case of Europe, regularly deep in debt and without friends, or more importantly, investors. Then, the government decided that something drastic needed to be done. So, they fired and then rehired the teachers with expanded requirements and greater expectations — and they paid them a starting salary equivalent to $45,000 a year — in Ireland, that much money goes considerably further than it does here and it put teachers on a sort of pedestal. It instantly made the teachers among the most respected members of every community in Ireland, and it challenged them.
The point was to demonstrate to the teachers and to the public that the nation needed to emphasize education, that without an Irish workforce better educated than other European nations, they didn't stand a chance. The teachers were the ones who could make this happen. Ireland is now referred to as "The Celtic Tiger," and has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, if not the world.
There is much information available online about how our schools are run in this nation, and it behooves us all to become better informed.
Check out the website of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and explore. We have some very dedicated and very smart people working for us there. Or learn more about "No Child Left Behind" at the federal Department of Education site and make up your own mind. To be fair, look in on the state teachers' unions (weac.org and aft-wisconsin.org). I'm a member of the board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, an interesting organization working to improve our educational standing.
Please become an informed citizen. Remember, it's the future we're talking about.
May 25, 2008
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John Smart lives in Park Falls, is a member of the Wisconsin Governor's Commission on the United Nations, the board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio's Ideas Network.