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Commentary: Schools that always push for innovation can compete globally

POSTED: January 29, 2012 12:30 a.m.
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Will Schofield

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Two weeks ago, 40 community members joined Hall County School District personnel for a "Bus Tour of 21st Century Education" at six of our local schools. Organized by our district team, participants visited numerous classrooms and were encouraged to look at all that we do with a critical eye.

Throughout the day and after, our guests were asked to provide ideas and suggestions as to how we might improve. Similarly, in November we gathered local business and industry leaders for a roundtable discussion, asking them to identify perceived strengths and weaknesses in our graduates that are now employed by their companies.

These types of events provide both encouragement and a challenge to do better.

Listening sessions are not episodic singletons for the Hall County School District. Rather, it is our desire that such activities become imbedded in the fabric of our system. In these times only individuals, families and organizations that embrace a practice of continually improving everything they do will survive and thrive.

I read reports relating to education almost every day that often purport simplistic solutions and hearken back to a "good old days" that quite frankly never existed. As the grey continues to overtake my sable covering, I have become more aware that those who offer simplistic solutions to complex situations often simply don't get it. The world is changing at an ever-increasing geometric pace, and schools have some catching up to do.

I am often asked, "With all the economic challenges of the present, why continue to push the urgency for change? People are overwhelmed; can't we just slow down a little?"

My personal priorities remain disciple, husband, father, educator, other, in that order. Reading the signs of life, your elected board and I grow concerned that our generation may be the first in the history of our country to leave fewer opportunities for our children than were left for us.

Therefore, our leadership team and school board seek to continually put events into perspective, and better understand how the world around us is liable to affect the next generation. Permit a math guy to rehash some modern history that illustrates how quickly the rules have changed.
Some of us remember a speech Ronald Reagan delivered at the Brandenberg Gate in June of 1987.

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall..."

While still not recognized as an equal to Lincoln's Second Inaugural or Churchill's "we will fight them on the beaches..", this prophetic message marked the beginning of a new global era that would have been difficult to imagine. In 1989 the Berlin Wall and communism fell and 700 million hungry and able Eastern Europeans awakened from decades of indifference to begin participating in the free market world economy.

During this same decade, 1.2 billion Indians and their federal form of government quietly began to stress technical education and the importance of training information age workers. The results: If you had a MRI or hired a firm to complete a corporate tax return recently, there is a strong chance this work was digitized and completed within the borders of India. International software and call centers have flocked to this nation with its combination of low wages and highly trained workers. It is an overgeneralization, but Indian nationals are answering the call of information-age businesses.

China, 1.3 billion and growing, made the determination 20 years ago to be the world's manufacturer. They appear to have followed through on that promise. Ignoring international ecological protocol and pouring resources into infrastructure, Walmart provides testimony to their success as 60-75 percent of the goods on that store's shelves are stamped with "Made in China." Simultaneously, these Asian Tigers have also made the graduation of engineers a priority, with estimates of up to 500,000 professionals a year being graduated from Chinese engineering programs.

These world events are not reason for dismay. However, they should serve as a loud and urgent wake-up call to defenders of the status quo. Education must accept these challenges and be willing to change and seek new and innovative ways to do more with less. Also, schools would be wise to protect against becoming self-serving entities unto themselves. Schools exist to support the desires of the communities and parents they serve, always.

We must cling to a laser-like focus on what we know makes a difference and abandon that which does not. Benjamin Bloom, the father of all learning research, proved almost five decades ago that regardless of current conditions, almost any child can be taught almost anything.

However, the following three tenets must be observed: 1. Students must be engaged and participate in the learning process. While technology is not the singular answer, it is certainly the way many of the digital natives in our school learn today. We must continue to strive to discern each and every student's abilities and passions, be they fine arts, engineering or technology, then seek to provide them experiences which focus on those areas.

2. Learning time must be treated as a variable and not constant. In other words, all students do not learn at the same rate. We must make every attempt to move away from our current factory model of schooling which is based upon chronological age and move towards learning models that allow us to harness the power of technology and allow us to individualize instruction based upon interest and readiness.

Finally, 3. Positive morale is foundational to success. Eisenhower reminded us that satisfied soldiers win wars. Similarly, satisfied students and teachers will thrive in a world that is ever-changing.

For this brief period of time, it is my honor to work with a board of education and a team of educational professionals that embrace the unprecedented challenges we face.

With the support of this great community, we will continue to set a bolder course and do just that. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to work with Hall County's greatest resource, our children.

Will Schofield is superintendent of Hall County Schools.



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