Listen While you Read…
The Montana State Legislature is now in session. I have a suggestion for them.
First, let me preface this post with some information about me. I have been somehow involved in public education in the state of Montana for the last 17 years.
With that being said, this post may in some way be biased in favor of public education.
I also understand that times are difficult and the budget is very tight, to say the least. Monies are difficult to come by, and the monies that are in the state coffers has been spoken for, time and again. However, the funding of public education in Montana has never been more important.
Students in Montana have an incredible opportunity to have a very unique and personalized education. 41% of public schools in Montana have an enrollment of less than 50 students. What does that mean? It means that students enjoy one of the lowest teacher to student ratios in the nation. It also means that students receive more one to one teaching time, smaller class sizes, resulting in better education. Disaggregate some of the data based on school sizes and you will see a significant difference in student performance. Small schools tend to have higher performing students.
Even the large schools in the state are seeing great success. Let’s face it, schools in Montana produce members of society who are informed, motivated, and self-sufficient. These are not the individuals who are costing the state in subsidized programs. In the long run, doesn’t this, in effect, save the state money?
The immediate future of education looks pretty grim. Fewer students are showing up to our school doors, a majority of our teachers are reaching retirement, and school funding is in question. Let me try to enlighten you based on my point of view.
This past year, my immediate colleagues and I have had multiple opportunities to travel the state and observe teachers in their classroom environments. Despite what you hear, great things are taking place in our public schools. Students are engaged, learning increasingly difficult material at increasingly younger ages. Teachers, despite being ranked 46th in wage earnings compared to the rest of our nation, are highly qualified in regards to education, excited, compassionate, and caring. Teachers are being expected to do more and more for the same or even less compensation. Now, this post isn’t to support an increase in teacher wages, but come on congress, 46th? Should we not be trying to attract the best teachers to arguably the most important profession? Alright, getting back on track. Despite the geographic and fiscal challenges our state faces, teachers are doing great things, and students are learning and performing at high levels.
One thing worries me, however. The use of technology in our schools. Now, we all know that integrating technology into education has not been proven to increase proficiency, however, I feel there is more to it than that. Engagement. Look around you. Watch some school age kids for a moment. Watch yourselves, for that matter. How has interaction changed with transformative technologies such as cell phones and laptop computers? People, not just students, are connected. They are using real time information in the form of comments, dialogue, pictures, videos, and sometimes even phone calls to learn, collaborate, and make decisions. Just like you. However, in our schools they are not allowed to use these tools. I heard recently that attending school is like jumping on an airplane. You are expected to put all your tools away, turn them off, disengage, buckle up and wait for the ride to be over( if this is your idea, please let me know so I can give you credit). To me, this is the real issue of our educational system. Engagement.
So, how does this tie in with what you are all doing in Helena? Of course, educational funding is incredibly important for this state. If we are not able to successfully and adequately prepare our students for the future, the state will continue to support these individuals well into adult hood. So, the question should becomes, how can we keep more kids in public schools?
Technology! Technology and the sound integration of technology in our schools will make learning more inviting and engaging. Predictions say that a high percentage of high school courses will be offered online by 2014. Montana has been insightful with its implementation of the Montana Digital Academy, but that is not enough. We need to go deeper into the schools to see the issue. Teachers need to be trained to use technology effectively in our schools. Ongoing, sustained, supported training will give teachers the necessary skills to use transformative tools in the classroom, which will in turn attract students to our schools, and maybe even reduce the dramatically high 5.1% and rising dropout rate.
One word of caution. Don’t expect immediate results. Change takes time. Changing a culture of public education to accept and adopt new and emerging technologies may take even longer. Funding is also necessary to instill and embed this change at a state level. Don’t take my word for it. Jump on Twitter, or Facebook, and watch or engage in this conversation on those platforms. Many people sharing success stories, ideas, and dreams.
Don’t pull the carpet out from underneath public education. Montana teachers are doing great things with the tools and resources they have. Imagine what they could do if education was viewed as important by decision makers in our state.