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Jay Evensen: When schools get in the way of real learning

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2 2013 1:35 p.m. MST

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What do you say when your child, a high school senior, comes home frustrated because he is forced to sit in a class where the teacher is meticulously showing students how to send an email?

What do you tell him when, after successfully passing a course on HTML programming, where he learned to design web pages and lit an inner flame for knowledge about more intricate computer skills, he now has to submit to an instructor telling him how to do things that seemingly every 21st century youngster knows by instinct?

The answer is, not much — to him, anyway — which is why I passively sit at the supper table, listening sympathetically. A basic computer technology literacy course is required for all Utah students to graduate from high school.

He knows the game as well as I. You do what you must to get the degree so you can move on to college.

What you might want to do, however, is tell state leaders a thing or two. For example, it's time to rethink education. Rather than cling to a system that rewards youngsters for simply keeping their rear ends in a seat over a particular length of time, perhaps it's time to create a system that rewards, and recognizes, learning. Move kids on when they are ready, not when enough bells have rung.

A few months ago I wrote about an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Jal Mehta, who published a paper outlining some radical proposals for reforming public education. Among other things, he said schools in the United States are "frozen in time." They still plod through textbooks and curricula while, outside school walls, learning has never been so exciting. Google is creating a vast digital archive. The Khan Academy provides a vast array of easy-to-understand online videos teaching a variety of topics, and other web sites and private companies are creating free access to lectures by prominent professors.

Why, Mehta asked, can't kids pursue their natural interests with adult supervision? Why not move away from committees that certify what children should read and learn?

His is not the only such voice. Awhile back I wrote about The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. I met with former Reagan administration Labor Secretary William E. Brock, who is a member of this commission. Among other things, he was proposing a plan that would dissolve all school districts and have states administer education through one board. Every school would be operated by independent contractors and would be monitored for performance. A state board of examination would monitor curriculum and graduate kids when they were ready.

These are only some ideas, but they deserve serious consideration as Utah struggles to increase the academic performance of its many school-age residents. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear anything so radical coming from people who actually have authority.

And so, I keep listening to my son as he comes home each day and tells me what he has been forced to endure that day.

Yes, district officials have explained to me that students can take a test allowing them to bypass this course. But it costs money (I was told the fee is about $50), and it comes with a risk. The test may be tougher than the course. If my son drops out now and fails the test, he can't graduate with his class.

I also know he should have taken the course earlier in his high school experience, or have taken the course online. But shame on him, he was too busy learning more advanced things that interested him.

I'm sure the legislative chambers and state school board halls that created these requirements were filled with good intentions. All Utah students should be computer literate. The course includes a unit on Internet ethics, which is sorely needed.

By all means, arm students with these skills. Just realize that a delivery system that insults both learning and a student's time won't help Utahns compete in an ever-changing world. It will, however, teach effective lessons about bureaucracy.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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