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Our Views: Back to the basics
Beyond debates over educational policies, learning boils down to human connections
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

In coming days, parents will be hitting the stores for shoes, notebooks and glue pens, chiseling dried gum off last year’s backpacks and preparing for another school year.

Whether you’re new to local school systems or a veteran of the back-to-school scramble, this summer’s news must leave your head spinning.

Common Core or no? No to most of it, Georgia says. No Child Left Behind gets left behind in a Race to the Top. CRCT, EOCT, charter schools, innovative “academies” with names out to here, changing curriculums, new initiatives and the push for more “rigor” in classrooms. And what to make of how technology best figures into the mix?

It’s all a blur to those who went to school in simpler times. For decades, the subjects changed little: math, from 1 plus 1 up to calculus; English, before it became language arts; history and geography, before they became social studies; science, before it became STEM; and a healthy dose of art, music, physical education, home economics and shop.

The textbooks were dog-eared behemoths the size of dinner trays, lined with highlighters and penciled-in doodles. The classrooms had chalkboards, old-fashioned green slates marked with white dust. Students watched grainy black-and-white films on reel-to-reel projectors or absorbed lessons from the overhead, the teacher marking on film with a grease pencil as the bulb blared and the fan whirred.

It was basic, yes, but it got the job done. Most who grew up and attended school in the last half of the 20th century managed just fine.

This is not to say innovations in education weren’t needed for a 21st century of global challenges. The good old days weren’t always good, and even when they were, they’re never coming back.

Yet whatever changes our schools have seen, one constant, from the Flintstones age to the Jetsons, is this: The four cornerstones of learning are dedicated teachers, attentive students, supportive parents and committed communities. Without each doing their part, nouveau techniques and an alphabet soup of exams are little more than wishful thinking.

Few jobs come with more challenges and less appreciation than teaching. Educators must boil curriculums down to lesson plans students can absorb. The push to emphasize science, math and technology is needed in a workplace hungry for high-tech wizards. But teachers must create well-rounded adults who appreciate literature and art as well.

They also must prepare future leaders and voters by teaching history and civics in more depth to help them understand a complex world, something hard to measure on a standardized test.

On beefing up social studies, Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said this at a recent school board meeting: “I get a sinking feeling that there are far too many citizens walking around today that are unfamiliar with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and what $15 trillion in debt means to their future.” Amen.

Mobile technology creates a new challenge. While technology already is playing an important role in teaching when used right, it can be a distraction when it is used wrong, and needs to be kept in check. And students sometimes must unplug long enough to pay attention to the grown-up speaking to them.

More students today also are from nontraditional families, whose transient nature make it harder to establish roots. Many are immigrants learning a new language and culture before they were fully comfortable in the old one. And in an era of economic uncertainty, more come to school hungry and lack the stable home environment needed to foster good study habits.

Teachers and administrators no longer are just well-trained pros hired to provide lessons and grade results. Now they must serve as counselors and role models, dipping into their own pockets for supplies and into their own hearts for emotional support. None of this was in the job description for Miss Landers when she guided Beaver Cleaver’s class.

For these efforts to pay off, students must want to learn. Those willing to invest in their future by embracing a good education will reap its rewards. Those who don’t can hurt themselves and can drag down a whole class. To build a future in an uncertain world, they must acquire the right tools their teachers work so hard to provide.

Here is where parents come in. Those who enable their kids’ endless hunger for junk food of the mind and body make schools’ jobs even harder. Worse are parents who fail to support school officials by acting as their children’s lawyers when behavioral problems arise. At one time, teachers and parents were on the same page, each respecting the other’s roles and authority. That relationship is vital to show children that both sets of adults are working in their best interests.

It was one thing when mom or dad would pitch in to help create that papier-mache volcano full of baking soda. Yet too many parents now take class projects in their own hands to help their kids pass. Good grades are important, but As and Bs not earned are hollow accomplishments, and will be revealed as such when the child exits their safe cocoon. Kids who do their own homework, knowing they can’t play outside or plug in their Wii until they do, will learn valuable lessons in and out of class.

The final piece of the puzzle comes from those of us who elect leaders, pay taxes and guide school boards. We must provide the resources needed and insist schools not be scavenged to balance budgets. Education can’t be bought on the cheap; while more money isn’t always the answer, less money never is. Voters should let elected officials know that anything less than a stellar school system in their communities is unacceptable.

To prepare students for the future they will inherit takes everything we can muster. Despite all the exams and measuring sticks meant to gauge student progress, the real proof of achievement won’t be known until a generation of well-learned, thinking citizens make their mark on the world a dozen years from now.

That journey begins again this August in dozens of classrooms. Let’s all do our part to make it special.

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