Alternative High Schools Proposal (1995-96)



The following was written when I was working as a substitute in the Great Falls, MT public schools as well as completing the requirements for a State Teaching Certificate.  My “activism” and criticisms of the existing system were not conducive for my finding a job, so I took one with a private academy in Bozeman which was based on many “progressive” or “alternative” ideas, without much understanding of how to implement them.

February 1, 1995 (revised 6-96)

Alternative High Schools Proposal
by Paul Stephens

It seems to me that the perfect solution to your overcrowding problem is to open two or more alternative Class A- or B-size high schools, each with its own emphasis and flavor. It would be nice to have Class C-size schools as well, but apparently they are anathema to those who would have to pay for them, and even to many who attended them, and now feel that they were very much short-changed in their high school educational experience. Subsequent performance at the state universities easily refutes this, but among students who don’t go on to college, it is often the case that large schools provide more courses and better job training opportunities. But academic quality is almost inversely proportional to size, and direcly proportional to student-faculty ratios, which are necessarily best in Class C schools.

The smaller, alternative high schools could be arts-oriented, gifted ed, vocational ed, follow a Native American or multicultural curriculum, and meet the needs of gifted underachievers who are often afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder, come from dysfunctional families, or otherwise are considered to have “special needs” which should be addressed.

The Russell Elementary School on the far west side is available, as is the Lowell Elementary building on the northeast side. Other facilities could be purchased or built as needed. We should also re-convert West Elementary to a Middle School or High School, as needed. Since I believe that we need to involve administrators more in everyday teaching, we should staff them independently with half-time principals and counselors who also teach half-time. Site-based management by administrators who teach and are selected by their peers is an idea whose time has come, with concomitant reductions in central administration. There are very few decisions which administrators really need to make, while routine paperwork is mostly done by office staff, who are paid a small fraction of an assistant superintendant’s salary. Administrators would be much better able to make good decisions if they shared the experience of everyday work with the other staff and students. Of course, building administrators do this now, yet they are often overridden or forced to conform to policies with which they may not agree or identify.

Curriculum is especially important in this regard, and it is essential that the classroom teachers have a large degree of autonomy and choice among methods and materials, so that they may select those which best reflect their own classroom methods and interests, and the experience of the best teachers. We should also offer many more academic electives at the high school level than we do, today. We must maintain the diversity and flexibility to pursue and support the interests of the students who are most interested in learning. To do this, we must considerably enhance the opportunities for teachers to determine their own curriculum, both individually and collectively. It should be possible to arrive at some consensus about what theories or concepts we would like to adopt or learn from in order to improve the quality and efficiency of our educational processes, and thus maximize the utility or value of the services provided. Assertive Discipline, the Jane Shaffer Method (essay writing) and other pre-packaged educational products and methods (purchased and implemented by this District at great cost in dollars and in lost opportunities for alternatives foregone) have not caught on, and may be considered largely unsuccessful in their outcomes.

Let’s make a list of some of the better free, universal, intelligent, and intuitive theories and methods, ranging from Montessori and Steiner to William Glasser’s “Quality School” and some of the state of the art gifted ed programs, which typically encourage the development of autonomous learners, cultivate many kinds of intlligences, and usually support a 30% or more arts-oriented curriculum. The great fallacy, it seems to me, is that such schools need to be much more expensive than what we have, today. There are thousands of gifted teachers, practicing their vocation as a fine art, who would jump at the chance to teach at any school which addressed their intellectual and cultural needs equally or more than their financial ones (which, as in my own case, are really quite small). I truly believe that the clients (students and parents) are best able to identify and select quality educational products and providers, and until we empower them through some sort of market mechanism (the ability to select among competing providers by choosing which ones to patronize and support), we will never have anything close to an optimal allocation of resources in public education.

The imposition of the Jane Shaffer method was not necessarily the best solution to our problem of poor writers (we ranked right at the national average several years, ago, while we were “above average” in every other area of tested achievement). If administrators were more like peers of the regular teaching staff, they would be much more effective. If we need a curriculum coordinator, we should be sure that other, more basic needs are met, first. And the greatest problem, as I see it, is that many people working for the District make much less than is fair, proper, and expedient for all of us. If the public schools are going to be a poverty zone, few young people are going to be impressed by the quality of teachers and other school employees. And if the system is elitist and hierarchical, besides, many ethical people will resist and oppose it on those grounds. We need to support public schools at an adequate level, eliminate waste and pandering to special interests, and separate education funding from all the social welfare services which other agencies are supposed to provide, but which will never be adequately addressed or provided, and have bankrupted the schools in the attempt to provide them.

It has long been my view that Malmstrom Air Force Base constitutes an insupportable (and now, unconscionable) burden and threat to the taxpayers, local education resources, infrastructure, tourism, and preservation of the natural environment. For over 50 years, the well-being of our young people has been held hostage to the next “mission” at Malmstrom, and in the process, we have become a garrison town instread of the free city, known and respected throughout the world, which we had been, before. We are “Occupied Montana, and no other city in our state bears that burden. We have also been a first-strike nuclear target for the past 35 years, and quite unnecessarily so. But whatever one thinks about Malmstrom Air Force Base and its future in this community, it is presently on a short list of unnecessary bases which will most likely be closed. We lack the population and Congressional clout to defend it, and its land-based ICBM mission has been obsolete and a pure “pork barrel” since the 1970’s. The Cold War is over, and unless the military-industrial complex manages to create another set of “enemies” or threats from somewhere (and they are doing their best to do so) we will benefit greatly from the transition to a nuclear-free, de-militarized environment. I think that civic leaders will be surprised at how quickly we recover, and join the economic boom that is taking place in other parts of Montana. Perhaps we will at last see the nuclear weapons as having been a means of keeping Montana poor and dependent instead of “supporting our economy,” as the foolish Chamber of Commerce types have long maintained.

Overcrowding in the schools has again become a problem, and whenever it is, I hope the solution will be seen in small, flexible, and diverse educational facilities rather than in giant, overcrowded, “basic education” schools like we have, today. Many students (perhaps the majority, once they experience the alternatives) would prefer a smaller school, and one which more accurately reflects their personal and community educational needs and interests. Offer more electives and specialized courses, not less, and encourage everyone to study foreign languages, the arts, and humanities rather than rigidly adhering to a curriculum which best serves the needs of business and technology.

It appears we are spending far more now on computers than on library books and periodicals, yet I have seen no indication that all of this technology is improving students’ interest in learning, mastery of any kind of subject matter, or development of creative thinking skills. High school libraries have been significantly “weeded” or dumbed down, but most of the books (at least at CMR) are now found in the classrooms where they are most likely to be used, rather than removed from the premises entirely. Skyline does not even have a school library, although I understand that they will soon have one. Computers, AOL, and even Internet should be available for students to use and play with, but I see no reason to keep upgrading (at tremendous cost) technology which is obsolete within a very few years, and which threatens to take over nearly every part of the curriculum and budget, as though computers were some sort of magical oracle which has precedence over every other educational experience. The lack of a budget line item for digital technology indicates to me that something is wrong, here. There may be a great deal of support for spending less on computers and more on teachers, books, and other equipment and supplies.

I’ve just begun reading The Education of Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, and after a lifetime of reflection, he observed that all he had needed to learn through high school was French, German, Spanish, and mathematics. Had he mastered those, he claimed he could have learned anything else he needed to know on his own. The Great Books curriculum, combined with science and math, an Asian and a European language, and whatever “hands-on” art and technology classes students want to learn would provide an equivalent education for our time. Today’s high school students are rarely challenged or engaged, but nearly always either bored or overworked with tasks they don’t enjoy or value. Smaller, community-based schools would be of the greatest help in gaining and keeping their interest. Teach students to think, learn, and solve their own problems and the whole society will benefit immeasurably. I have offered to teach philosophy and economics courses (my own academic background) in both existing high schools for several years now, and the (unintentionally) ironic response I have gotten is that you cannot afford them! Obviously, you cannot afford not to teach economics and philosophy, judging from the ignorance of these subjects in the larger community.

High school students, their parents, and teachers should be included in the process of planning for changes in their education. Administrators should invite them to Board meetings and work sessions so that they may offer their views and feelings about the education you are providing for them. Foreign exchange students and our own students who have studied abroad should be most carefully questioned and consulted about their perceptions of our schools, and what we need to do to match the educational standards of other developed, prosperous countries. Right now, we’re dead last among all the developed countries in our educational outcomes, even though we spend more money per student than any country but Switzerland. Less than half of our budgets now go to teachers’ salaries, and that, along with lack of community responsiveness and involvement (lack of diversity and choice), probably best explains our high costs and poor results.

For the past several years, I’ve been advocating gifted education and more elective options in the humanities and social sciences for high school students. Part of my reasoning has been that our high schools are much too large and authoritarian in tone to provide relevant, meaningful, participatory educational experiences for all students. Schools like Cut Bank, Geyser, and Miles City offer philosophy and/or economics courses, while we do not. Electives like Ancient History, Russian History, Latin American History, Peace Studies, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian languages, and the History of War, all of which have been taught here, are no longer being offered — again because of budget considerations which you seem powerless to deal with or overcome. Since nearly all school funding now comes from the State, you need to consider Helena your primary focus for political action. Some of you seem much more concerned about humoring wealthy taxpayers and the anti-intellectual elements in our community than with improving education. Nuclear weapons haven’t improved our economy or our schools. Instead, they have bankrupted us, scared away investors or those who want to live in a nuclear-free Montana, and made us utterly dependent on outside funding we cannot control.

The demand for high-end, multi-cultural, and arts-oriented courses and programs far exceeds the supply, and it is only through the adoption of a philosophy which rewards and encourages excellence that public education can be saved. Students rise to the level of expectation. The most challenging and creative classes are the most interesting and useful to the students. Young people want to learn more than anything else they do, and I’m afraid our present system doesn’t do nearly enough to encourage them and build upon their strengths and interests. Attracting better teachers and empowering them to modify and adapt the curriculum, while selecting or being selected by the students whom they can best serve, will do more to improve the quality of education than anything else we can do.


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