Having attended forums on Justice Robin Jean Davis' truancy issues and the governor's Education Audit, reading the latest issue of Kid's Count data and the conflicting review of West Virginia's Pre-K (3- and 4-year-olds) and observing the lackluster achievement data from the NAEP, ACT, SAT as well as results from AP testing, it is clear to this writer that West Virginia's schools and educators are at a significant juxtaposition. School leaders are ready to make the changes, but they need to the support of our communities.
For West Virginia public schools in the 21st century to meet the educational needs of future productive citizens in a democratic society, education reform is no longer an effective strategy. There must be a schooling transformation: a transformation in the way schools are funded, how they exist, and the manner in which they operate; how they empower the stake holders; how they engage and support learners and teachers in the education processes; and how they develop and sustain "life-long learning."
The fact that schools fail on a regular basis has never been acceptable, and now, more than ever, we are seeing the short- and long-term effects of these lapses. There are so many "red flags" appearing daily within our society about schooling ineffectiveness that it is no longer (nor has it ever been) just a "school problem." Politicians in the past liked to "beat up on" the schooling community with reform rhetoric to garner votes, but the realities of schooling failures are now apparent to everyone.
Schools are in need of transformative leadership within the local, state and federal education communities throughout regular and higher-education venues. Effective schooling is no longer "their" problem; it is "our" problem. Society can continue to "re-correct" the same "problems" over and over with the same basic strategies and the same failing results or new ideas can be implemented to harvest new learning with more effective outcomes. West Virginians always have been blessed with dedicated and hard-working teachers, principals and central office administrators, and currently in West Virginia, Innovation Zones have been piloted throughout the state.
It is now time to support these new learning models systemically and in our communities. It's been said that everyone knows about schools because they attended one, but the transformation our schools need to provide the high quality schooling opportunities for our children will make our schools look and operate much differently than those in the past.
The current whipping boy of school reform, No Child Left Behind, the name given the latest complete reauthorization (2002) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), has in fact never been completely funded by Congress, even though NCLB was endorsed (with much pomp) by both "sides of the aisle." The noted shift to new levels of accountability was only part of the law that also provided more local control for stakeholders and parent involvement, schooling choices, credentialed transparency and a parent's right to know about their school's achievement, a desegregated focus of student groups that had been traditionally disenfranchised from the accountability/learning formulas as well as extended learning models and research-based instructional interventions.
In the end, the accountability piece seemed to be more about teacher effectiveness than student learning, opening up the realm of "quick-fix or teach-to-the-test" mentalities that drive current policy and practice in schools while all along our schools continue to fail at a faster rate than ever before. We can continue to blame a failing policy or we can take steps to re-energize the why children attend schools by offering authentic and engaging learning practices that motive children, parents, teachers, community members and administrators to collaborate in producing effective learning environments for all.
The solution to public schools lies in the transformation of the way we view the learning processes. Students and teachers need to be "reconnected" to relevant, engaging and emotionally responsive learning practices - practices that value "how" students and teachers are smart, celebrating the "element" of individual "passion" rather than forcing a disconnected curricular agenda void of stakeholder ownership and developmental idiosyncrasies. It must be a learning process that encourages the teachers and learners to embrace their individual as well as collective emotional connections in the schooling arena. People searching for such schooling strategies have found them within the arts - for more than 5,000 years.
The arts, ah yes often the first thing on the budget and instructional time/access to curriculum chopping blocks. Why? It's because that is the way we've always done it. "You can't get a job that pays a livable salary doing that ", so goes the traditional argument.
Interestingly enough, the skill sets of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration needed to power the innovation required in the 21st century economic models (good jobs) are the very same outcomes the arts have produced since their inception. So why do the arts have a reduced presence in the classroom?
Well, they are not measured on the BIG TEST, "so why teach them?" The arts, which lead to excellence by engaging the emotional attachment (passion) to the learning processes are being eliminate (often as an "unintended outcome") within our schooling models. The attachment the arts bring to the learning processes motivates students and parents to participate (attend school, support teachers, etc.) in schooling initiatives. The same emotional attachment also enables teachers to connect with the energy that first inspired them to become teachers. (Very few teachers entered the profession to teach a scripted curriculum.) The schooling model that creates these connections is known as arts-based learning.
The arts celebrate the individual through collaborative efforts (plays, concerts, shows, etc.) at every developmental level. Arts-based learning brings one's personal likes into the schooling process at every level and every subject. Students and teachers interact as collaborators of learning, bringing engaging and relevant experiences into every instructional arena. Students can not only show (assessment) how smart they are, but also how they are smart.
Pencil and paper assessments become the exception rather than the norm because they are not relevant to developmental outcomes. Learning becomes personalized and engaging for students and teachers.
The school "system" needs to support personalized schooling through arts-based learning in every manner at every level. A teacher cannot hope to sustain an arts-based classroom without the support of colleagues, administrators, parents, community resources and philanthropy. A shared ownership of the processes and outcomes of an effective schooling system by all the stakeholders in a community must be integrated throughout the publicly funded educational journey.
Arts-based learning doesn't require a major "retooling" of schools with millions of dollars of new technology but begins by encouraging, supporting and sustaining new ways of thinking about how schools approach the learning that is important for students to master. We already know how to implement schooling initiatives, the only question remaining is why we haven't yet initiated policies and practices that are effective in teaching all the children in our 21st century American society.
Bob Dunkerley is the president and CEO of Helianthus LLC, a West Virginia-based education consulting firm (www.helianthusonline.com) specializing in strategic research and external reviews, arts-based learning (school transformation models) and arts-based initiatives (corporate HR professional development) as well as Arts Advocacy. Dunkerley retired from a 34-year career in West Virginia Public Schools and resides in Elkins with his wife, Karen.