Positive Change in Education: Efforts Toward Sustainable Economic Development

Submitted by Sudhir Kade on Mon, 10/03/2005 - 16:54.

Several organizations in Northeast Ohio have wrangled with the concept of educational reform for decades, yet we have only seen incremental improvements over the years. More recently, change efforts have been ramped up, with survey and dialog based initiatives such as Voices and Choices and By the People currently in full swing. RealNEO has advocated educational reform since inception and has hosted City Club roundtable forums over the past year to address this very issue. All of these efforts have centered upon core challenges to address and these are as follows:

  1. Creating curriculum for the 21st century
  2. Funding quality education for all people
  3. Higher education : mitigating brain drain
  4. Role of Parenting versus Government
  5. Collaborating effectively to drive positive change in Education
  6. Appealing to the intrinsic motivation of students (see 1)

Opinions vary and differ on approaches and methodologies to employ to resolve these issues, and as such polling and survey data from Gallup, Voices and Choices, and MacNeil / Lehrer have all provided insights representative of Northeast Ohio from which strategic action plans can be constructed. Understanding the enumerated issues above creates a critical foundation from which meaningful progress can be made. I discuss relevant issues and concerns relevant to each topic area as a separate article starting with…

Article One: Creating Curriculum for the 21st Century

Curriculum change at all levels of education has been called for decades – many schools employ teachers who use outdated texts and traditional lesson plans which lack innovation or appeal for today’s young people. Furthermore, core positive change concepts which need to be inculcated throughout curriculum are rarely addressed – for example, many educational institutions fail to integrate arts and culture appreciation, creative writing, foreign language, or music instruction which can be important in cultivating appreciation of culture and diversity. Mandates such as the No Child Left Behind Act have come under scrutiny for disregard of topics which speak to culture and creativity in preference for teaching which focuses on standardized test preparation and performance. Supporters of the mandate insist that it creates a measurable standard and sets clear expectations for teachers and students in the process. 

      In addition to curriculum reflective of arts and culture there is great opportunity to foster an appreciation for issues of the environment and sustainable community development. The former speaks to cultivating a clear understanding of the profundity of the situation and cultivating the shared interest of young people in eco-friendly strategies that help ensure a decent quality of life for future generations. These teachings are rarely emphasized at the grade school level and are often introduced for the first time in college- by this time core behavior and attitudes on the part of students may have become too entrenched and reinforced to allow for easy transition to new behaviors and paradigms supportive of sustainability. A core shift needs to occur not only at the individual level – which is characterized by shift in behavior toward recycling, reuse, and reduction of waste products and consideration of alternative energy sources which are less conducive

to pollution and global warming. A similar shift is needed to move students toward ethical integrity and strong character – ethics courses and experiential learning gained through community service and citizenship behaviors can help greatly in this regard.

      In essence these curriculum changes need to result in a learning process that is fun and exciting – and it is here where the creativity and talent of the teacher are critical. The most innovative curriculum in the world is still only as successful as the teacher driving and facilitating the learning process. In order to lead by example, teacher education needs to reflect these same core values of cultural appreciation, innovation, and sustainability. Teacher education needs to stress the identification of the core interest and passion areas of each student and the cultivation of that energy and passion toward expertise in that realm. To put it simply, people love doing work they love. 

      Innovation in schools themselves (organization and governance) is also key to change and can mean many things – such innovations include charter schools, magnet schools, educational vouchers, shared educational resources across districts, distance learning, and school choice. There are several verifiable success stories and best practices to fit each of these innovative models and these need to be studied and highlighted to feed change efforts where they are needed.

      There has long been a prevailing paradigm among students in schools of education that studying and learning are ‘nerdy’ behaviors – the popular students are invariably the jocks and cheerleaders - and this illustrates a perverse pervasion that requires a fundamental shift. To some extent this means empowering students and accepting that they are capable of understanding these positive change concepts should they be clearly and carefully illustrated. A simple example would be providing examples of ‘nerds’ who have become billionaires like Bill Gates – perhaps even more effective would be having alumni of the school return to tell their success stories as investment bankers, entrepreneurs, or artists and draw the connection to the importance of hard work and study to their respective success stories. 

      Certainly there are many more possibilities in designing future curriculum and there are always measures of controversy which require a carefully balanced and fair representation of issues. Controversy over the appropriateness of spirituality in public schools is just one example of this – the long standing debate between Creationism and Evolution is yet another. Traditionally science has remained steadfast in sticking with those theories and principles which have significant support and merit. The separation of church and state (secularism) has been the prevailing paradigm for decades in most of our nation’s schools. Yet one must wonder if there might be merit in a non-sectarian, unbiased representation of the world’s religions as a means of illustrating the diversity of faiths which share remarkable commonalities. – Agnosticism and Atheism could be included as well, of course. I can’t help but wonder at the implications for peace and unity in the world should such lessons in ‘diverse unity’ be instilled in today’s young people. 

      Innovation is the key to creating exciting new curriculum that can positively influence community development efforts , servitude and citizenship in the future leaders of tomorrow. Still, the talent and creativity of the teacher steering discussion and learning cannot be understated. And we must not forget that there are many entrenched paradigms and there is much resistance to change that is new or novel. Such resistance will need to be overcome – and it is hoped that dialogue and study on the part of the region’s people will help prime the community for change and overcome prior prejudices and hang-ups. The potential for curriculum and school change is exciting – and unprecedented collaboration and a willingness to take calculated risks will both play important role in educational reform for the region. I, for one, can’t wait to contribute.

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