School reform and Scarecrow's diploma

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One intriguing element of the huge budget bills recently passed by Congress was money to hire thousands of teachers. This plan is based on widespread concern that public schools are in trouble, and aren't preparing kids for the 21st century. Adding more instructors certainly can't hurt, but nobody should expect a great leap forward in youthful academics.

I'm speaking from past experience as a student, and my current role of parent. Much of what happens in any classroom may seem dull, irrelevant, or confusing. This is true for students, teachers, and outside observers. But learning isn't a simple, predictable process. My best SAT scores were in math, which I did not enjoy and avoided in college. Go figure.

And every time I visit my daughter's school, I'm stunned to see how much effort is required to supervise a room full of energetic children five days a week. Teaching is no picnic. I would be emotionally wiped out in three hours.

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Everyone wishes education could be more like that memorable scene in The Wizard of Oz, where a scarecrow gets a diploma and promptly recites a geometry formula. I wonder if the Emerald City was using a voucher system? Critics of public schools often talk about accountability. Some of them believe schools would improve if they were run more like a business, with teachers being rated according to how well their students perform on tests and other evaluations.

But when you debate educational alternatives, it's possible to make a good case for almost any model. How about running a school like a circus? Taking care of lions, tigers, and bears would provide vivid lessons in accountability. I'm not being snide here. My point is that every curriculum will inspire some kids to thrive, while others shrug and stare at the ceiling.

And if a school is faltering, the surrounding community is often in bad shape. Students living in bleak neighborhoods filled with troubled families have problems that won't be resolved in a classroom. No amount of money can transform a public school into an island of social prosperity.

The most interesting idea I've heard lately is building schools that link together with other community services, so that a campus might include a police bureau or a senior center. I'm in favor of anything that increases communication across cultural boundaries such as age, occupation, or income. Too often students feel isolated from the society they are supposed to inherit.

So bring on those new teachers, and let's keep working together. I want my daughter to enjoy learning and stay curious about the world, so she'll be ready for any surprises that pop up along the road of life. Even a talking scarecrow.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a Monitor humor columnist, lives in Portland, Ore.

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