A CLEAR VISION GBC shows foresight on school reform


By the time my 93-year-old grandmother died several years ago, she had witnessed the most massive transformation in human history: the change in the nature and pace of change itself.

The first 50 years of her life in rural Russia were ones of sameness and predictability.

In her tiny village, she had every reason to believe that life would be the same for her as it was for her mother and grandmother. Major and rapid technological and social changes were not in the realm of possibility.

In the last half of her life, she saw her first car, telephone, the birth of airplanes and computers.

She watched excitedly as Neil Armstrong stood on the moon and cried helplessly as grandchildren divorced and families split apart.

She died quickly one night, kept active and alert until death by advances of modern medicine.

Yet it is bizarre that we still educate our youth in virtually the same way we did in my grandmother's day. When are we going to realize that we are already living in the future, whose only predictable character is constant, rapid change?

What triggered my latest thoughts on education was last week's report on Baltimore's future.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, under the leadership of President Robert Keller, offers us a new vision for the Baltimore region.

And vision it is. Not that everyone will agree with either its reasoning or direction. But, like any well-conceived vision it is far-reaching, comprehensive and offers a glimpse of what our future can be like.

In suggesting an economy rooted in the life sciences, the GBC did not leave us in the clouds. In a Perspective column in The Sun, Keller outlined the four areas that must be addressed in order for the life sciences vision to become a reality.

Education, what Keller calls "greater Baltimore as a learning community," was one of the four critical areas.

Whether you agree or disagree with the vision, the manner in which Keller lays out the educational tasks is impressive.

As an advocate for many of these reforms over the past 20 years, I was personally satisfied to see them proposed.

First, the GBC suggests that we re-examine what it is that people need to learn in today's age and how to most effectively teach that content.

Next, the larger community must become active participants in the education of our youth.

Knowledge has mushroomed so much in the past 50 years that we can no longer pretend our traditional school system can respond adequately to all youth in all areas of the curriculum.

We need to involve museums, nature centers and arts groups in schooling in an entrepreneurial environment that provides our youth with the latest information taught in the most effective manner.

We need to bring in social service and recreational agencies to help our inner-city youth build positive self-esteem with their proven successful programs, and with tutoring, mentoring and prevention programming.

The schools simply cannot achieve all that is unrealistically expected of them in today's frenetic world.

The GBC report recognizes these needs. And it goes further still, suggesting that the schools themselves, and their governance, need to be restructured.

Like any successful business today, whether for-profit or non-profit, good management is the name of the game.

For our public schools that means good classroom management by individual teachers and effective leadership skills by administrators. The old, bureaucratic, top-down style of managing our schools is a dinosaur. As the world changes rapidly, learning is becoming extinct for broad segments of our student population.

A good place to start restructuring management practices might be for the GBC to look at neighboring Delaware, one of eight states participating in the "Re: Learning" effective schools movement. In this program, individual schools are restructured from the bottom up, with decision-making at the school level.

Principals are facilitators, not tyrants. And, kids learn to love learning.

The "Re: Learning" movement is so well received that tiny Delaware has received hundreds of thousands of corporate dollars to help it grow. I recently convened a group of corporate scientists, executives, policy-makers and educators to go the next step, to conceptualize how "Re: Learning" schools could apply reorganized schools to more effective curricula.

The National Science Foundation just awarded Delaware a $7 million-dollar grant to implement that program.

School reform is no easy matter. But, it can be done. The Greater Baltimore Committee has just given us a vision of what that reform could do for our region.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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