HETRICK: Why this public-school baby fears school reform

January 8, 2011

I am a product of the public school system in Fort Wayne. Not charter schools. Not parochial schools. Not private schools. Not home schooling. Just an old-fashioned, in-my-neighborhood elementary school, junior high and high school.

In my public schools, I learned the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. I learned about history and science, government and politics. I had my knowledge and skills tested and reported frequently not only by my teachers, but also by instruments that compared my scores to those of students taking the same tests nationwide.

Academically, I fared well. I graduated among the top 10 percent in a class of 555. I also scored well enough on my college entrance exams to be admitted to the university of my choice.

To be sure, my success in the well-rounded basics has helped along the way. But it’s not that part of my public schooling that set me apart, shaped my career, and prepared me for the challenges and opportunities of the real world.

That, I’m afraid, falls to some parts of public education that are increasingly at risk in our quest to measure every student and every teacher à la clones or microchips on an assembly line.

Like many students, I had good teachers and bad—teachers who motivated me and teachers who put me to sleep, teachers who were favorites and teachers I’d avoid.

I had teachers who are my friends on Facebook 35 years later. I also had a shouting match with one teacher that had me racing to the assistant principal’s office begging for the faculty member to be fired (It didn’t work; she had tenure).

So, while I’m all for measuring faculty performance, I know enough of schooling to believe that quantitative measures don’t tell the whole story, that one student’s favorite educator is another student’s nightmare, and that teachers shouldn’t always be blamed for their inability to get something through a thick skull like mine.

Sometimes, it even works out for the best.

Early on, I was a math whiz. Algebra was a breeze. But when I moved on to high school geometry, I struggled—especially with a teacher others might have liked, but I found sleep-inducing.

So I quit her class—and signed up for theater and drama. That decision, coupled with years of choir, show choir, plays, musicals, student government, newspaper, yearbook, photography, writing, speech competition and other right-brain courses and extracurriculars, have fired my passions and career.

My choir and drama teachers cast me in shows, built my confidence and taught me the magic of a choreographed cast and crew sweating every interdependent detail to pull off a performance.

My music theory teacher taught me how to hear and understand every individual voice by letting me write a full orchestral score for the opening of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

The senior editors of our newspaper and yearbook saw my potential as a photographer and nurtured that talent with years of assignments and creative freedom.

A speech teacher recognized that my writing skills and acting experience might combine well for speech competition. That led to a state championship, a chance to contend nationally and, eventually, professional work as a speechwriter and coach.

A civics teacher urged me to join student government and run for a leadership position. His push helped me understand people, persuasion, power and politics—and led to my first job in local-government public affairs.

Given my experience, there are two things I fear most in our quest for education reform and accountability.

First, while I understand the need for America to compete globally in science, math and technology, not all of us are cut out for that. What’s more, author Daniel Pink and others have pointed out that it’s whole-brain thinking and problem-solving, not just left-brain processing, that will set our nation apart and sustain our leadership in the global economy.

“The MFA is the new MBA,” Pink says.

Yet it’s easier to measure student performance—and, thus, educator success—for the quantitative stuff. With math, science and technology, you’re right or wrong.

But how do you measure the team-building lessons from my choir teacher? How do you measure the confidence instilled and presentation abilities honed by a public-speaking or drama teacher? How do you measure the value of civility learned from a student-government adviser?

What’s more, this column would get creamed on a standardized test for avoiding the canned essay formula and for employing incomplete sentences. Does that mean my English teacher has to go?

Second, and equally important, in our quest to cut budgets and “teach to the test,” far too many schools are dropping the subjects and extracurriculars that hone right-brain thinking, teamwork, character, civility, cultural understanding and more.

The society that shortchanges arts and humanities education does so at its own peril.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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