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April 3, 2011

MIKE LUNSFORD: A lesson plan for public schools

TERRE HAUTE — I am an advocate of public education; I pull no punches about that. I have taught in public schools for 32 years, and I think it is an inherently American institution. I am proud to call myself a teacher, and I am proud that I am a product of public schools.

That being said, I will also say this: Public school teachers want school reform. Any teacher worth much knows that change is a vital part of the job of helping children learn. But true school reform doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water; it doesn’t suggest that things are so broken that they can’t be fixed either. School vouchers and ending teachers’ rights to negotiate for working conditions, as attractive as they may sound to some, are not going to help public schools be better places to learn, and no one and no data will convince me otherwise. Perhaps you’ve heard Mark Twain’s words: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” All three are at work in painting a picture as to how easy it would be to clean up the “school mess.” Well, it’s not simple, and in many instances, it’s not a mess, either.

Our citizenry doesn’t appreciate the value of education as it once did, and until it does, I’m not sure we will ever see schools be as effective as we’d like them to be. We’re teaching children, not producing drainpipe. I wish more people understood that. If I could suggest a few changes that would help schools be better right now, this is what they would be:

• First, I’d like to see our youngest students go to kindergarten all day. I know that sounds simplistic, but it makes sense to me. Kids who are in school all day learn more, and that certainly has to prove true for 5 and 6-year-olds. It will take money — state money — but it’s a great investment in the future of our children, particularly for those whose first schools — their homes — are not education friendly. Personally, I don’t see how kindergarten teachers survive. I can deal with a classroom of surly, groggy seniors any day, but give me one 5-year-old who’s wet his pants or is crying for his mom or has a death grip on my leg, and I’d be lost.

• Second, if going to school for an entire day helps the youngest of our students, why wouldn’t that be true for the rest of them? Hoosier kids miss too much school, and they are absent too often without consequences. Schools should have rigorous attendance policies in place, and it will take money — again, state money — to see that those policies can be enforced. Teachers and administrators are not responsible for getting children out of bed and ready for school (or in bed the night before at a decent hour either). Every school system in the state should have the funding it needs to employ truancy and attendance officers and extra hours at school for students who need to make up for lost time. Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase, “Trust but verify.” That should apply to student absences, because whether they like it or not, many of these chronically absent kids will actually have to show up to jobs some day.

• Third, we should be expanding the arts in public schools, not hacking away at them with the budget axe. I know, that’ll take money too, but the arts — music and philosophy and painting and cooking and sewing and woodworking — all help make our kids better people, not just better students; they help equip our kids for a future of enlightening and entertaining themselves, and they help them think more creatively, which I believe helps anyone headed to the factory, the boardroom, or into parenthood. The testing mantra has been chanted long enough; take a look at how much time and money is being spent on that agenda. The arts are subjects that can’t be evaluated through ISTEP or End-of-Course Assessments, and that irritates those who advocate for and profit from such things. We are not creating worker drones; we are helping prepare people for a life in which they can think — or guess — in terms past a multiple choice exam.

Our kids need to read more and they need to read better. Reading will help them in every phase of their lives. Reading and comprehending good books and essays and poetry and short stories can, in the long run, help make our children more compassionate, more caring people. That may sound naïve, but it is true. So they can teach to the assessment tests, more and more teachers have to pass on teaching what our children should be reading and discussing. Money is needed right now for more reading specialists, and more teachers in all disciplines need training so they can teach children with reading difficulties how to read and comprehend what they read. And for goodness sake, please keep funding libraries so they’ll have a place to get a book, even an electronic one.

• Fourth, fund alternative schools. That may sound a lot like a charter school proposal, but it isn’t. Every public school corporation, and I mean even the smallest and most rural, should have at least one alternative school program going. They can even be shared between neighboring school systems. The one-size fits-all concept of education has never worked very well. Some students take more time to earn a diploma, more time to pass a standards-based performance test, or they may have one or more of myriad personal issues to deal with. Students should have an option within their own local school corporations. It will take money — state money — but right now there is an inequity in who can offer alternative education, and the state should help fix the problem, not by suggesting that new charter schools will take these students in, because I doubt that most will.

• Fifth, schools should be offering classes in civics and citizenship again. Another idea that has no immediate pay off? Maybe, but we are graduating more and more students who have little idea of what it is to be a citizen, and that puts us all in peril. When I look at old civics texts, which emphasized responsibility and manners and punctuality, I can’t help but think that there’s no less need for those now than 40 years ago. American Government — taught mostly in the senior year — is a fine course, but for most of our kids, that single semester class is all they’ll ever really have that is primarily concerned with how our governments are supposed to work. I hardly think reading accounts about the doings at the Statehouse will help them much.

And, while we’re at it, let’s have our kids take consumer economics before they graduate. Learning about the gross national product and stock portfolios is great, but if they have no understanding as to how to manage a credit card or balance a checkbook, they’re in trouble. As terrible as it sounds, that means we may actually have to hire teachers, and if we did, I sure would hope they hold valid teaching licenses. The idea that we should be sending more and more of our students off to college campuses after their junior year sounds a bit nutty to me too. They should be using their senior years to go to proms and play sports and take extra course work and to grow up.

• Finally — and I mean for now — let kids take trips to places away from their schools, to museums and symphonies and planetariums and places of business, and, yes, even to Indianapolis to watch our General Assembly at work. Field trips have gotten a bad rap for years as being lost days and playtime, and they’re dropping from curriculums like dead flies. I can still remember the trip my fourth grade class took to Vincennes; the bullet holes in William Henry Harrison’s house remain burned into my impressionable little mind even now. I learned more about Indiana history in one day than any book ever taught me, and I had fun learning it. If we’re going to invest money into maintaining historic sites — or, in the case of the Ernie Pyle birthplace, abandoning them — how about canceling one measly standardized test a year to send kids on a trip to one of them? A school trip may be their only exposure to such places.

I have mentioned money — state money — on every one of these points, and I know that the easy thing to say right now is that throwing money at education won’t work.

Throwing it probably won’t work, but putting it where it will do the most good just might.


Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at, and visit his website at He is currently working on his third collection of stories.

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