Lesson plan for a real education

WITH THE NEW academic year under way, education reform is back in session.

The big question, as always, is how to boost the performance of our young pupils. Answers are multiple choice. Vouchers, charter schools, and year-round scheduling all have their own squads of cheerleaders. However, one notion that deserves immediate expulsion from this debate is that teachers should be financially rewarded when their students produce good grades.

"No A, No Pay" makes for lively talk shows, but in my book, it's the class clown of reform ideas. I can see it now: principals walking into staff lunch rooms and handing out crisp, hundred-dollar bills, just like Monte Hall used to do on "Let's Make a Deal." But schools are not like game shows or widget factories.

Everyone wants the perfect blueprint for an education that will ensure their children's success. Yes, it would be wonderful if someone figured out a way to tweak the system so it churned out legions of young Einsteins. Except that Einstein was a poor student. And this is exactly my point: The little factor called "individuality" can cause a lot of surprises throughout one's life. I got my best SAT score in math, then fled from the subject after high school.

It's true that smaller class sizes, ongoing teacher training, and technology upgrades can produce better learning opportunities. But they won't guarantee success later.

What a child accomplishes as an adult is often impossible to predict by adding up youthful experiences. Babe Ruth, for example, didn't play Little League baseball; Abraham Lincoln wasn't a political science major; Sacagawea had no formal training as a facilitator; Walt Whitman did not attend creative-writing workshops; Harriet Tubman never went to a leadership seminar.

If all these people could start over as kindergartners right now, would they go on to earn good marks and qualify their teachers for cash rewards, or be sent to the principal's office every day?

Anyone who spends time in a busy classroom also knows that many factors can't be quantified, such as the personal chemistry between staff and students. That subject rarely gets mentioned by media pundits. It's more exciting to argue about teachers unions and tax rates.

National standards? Pass whatever federal guidelines you want, but my hot-button activity during the past few years at my daughter's school was trying to help the custodian nab the culprits who thought it was funny to throw water and toilet paper around in the boys' bathroom. We failed, but I'm certainly not going to write my congressman about it. I also think too many critics focus on test scores and grade-point averages.

Education is part of building a community. Kids should be learning skills to help them navigate in the world after graduation. My ongoing curriculum emphasizes the basics: Set high standards for yourself. Pay attention. Learn from mistakes. Be a good neighbor. Reject boredom.

If this lesson plan inspires (or provokes) someone reading it to a higher level of personal achievement, maybe I'll buy a new cap and put a little feather in it. But I won't be looking in the mail for any bonus checks.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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