Friday, January 1, 2010


“You asked about high quality - it seems to be … a vague generality,” writes Vance Jochim.

The Florida constitution requires a high-quality school system. But what does that really mean? Vance wants a definition. Fair enough. Please get comfy. Here’s one answer, from the standpoint of a high school teacher.

In high school, high quality education begins at home, with the attitude of the student. All high school students need to realize that education can help them become self-sufficient and productive adults. Some already know this, bless their parents. Others should have learned it, but haven’t. And still others come from conditions so harsh that they’ve never had a fair chance to learn it.

Whatever the cause, until students gain some perspective about the value of an education, high school is a waste of time for them. So that’s job one: Developing an understanding of what education means, and how lucky we are to have it.

If you want to help students learn more about why school matters, encourage them to read The Thread That Runs So True, by Jesse Stuart, or view the film Coach Carter. These two stories reflect radically different cultures, but drive home the same essential message.

Second, once students have a genuine desire to improve themselves, they deserve a fair chance to reach their potential. This doesn’t mean every student has to become a brain surgeon or the whole system is failing. It means that students who are willing to work, and willing to learn, should see a clear way up.

Those who want to go to college, and qualify, should go. Those who want to join the armed forces, and qualify, should join. Those who want to build a career in the trades, in technology, or some other field, should get qualified and do just that. Schools should support all of those goals, not pretend that the only good option is college immediately after high school.

In younger years I was a steel worker and a construction worker. I worked in landscaping. I washed dishes and cooked for a restaurant. Later I became a writer and photographer. And then I was lucky enough to become a newspaper editor and finally an exec with a bonus and corporate Amex card.

All this occurred before I became a teacher. I found successful people, filled with dignity, characterized by a strong work ethic, in every one of these jobs. And if you listened, hustled, and learned, there was a fair chance to get ahead.

So experience tells me that a high quality education starts with getting mentally prepared to learn.

Pretending there is only one path to success, college immediately after graduating, disrespects the working world. Some people work a while and go to college later. Others never go, but succeed nonetheless because parents, teachers, and mentors taught them how to make it, and because they were smart enough to listen.

Every time a student grows into a self-sufficient, productive adult, the world gets a little better.

OK Vance, stay with me. If I had to specify areas where education quality is weakest right now, I would begin with Internet research.

Every student should be a skilled Internet researcher before graduating because this is the single most important knowledge base and skill set in today’s economy. It applies to so many fields of work and study.

We have no Internet research course in our language departments. Instead, we ask teachers to somehow weave it in as part of their technique. That simply won’t work. The Internet is not a fad; it’s an engine of economic opportunity. To get it, you need to study it rigorously. Far too many people, including many education leaders, think using the Internet means using google. They truly don't get it.

We do offer business courses for graphics and web design, and that’s wonderful. But we ignore the main purpose of the Internet – its role as the dominant source of information on planet Earth. There is a global brain out there, and it’s waking up faster than we are.

So let’s stop snoozing. How can we send our students to college, into the military, into career training, without Internet research skills? The only responsible thing to do is put the course into every high school, support it, and require it.

A second major weakness, in my view, is the erosion of the well-rounded curriculum.

For instance, humanities is no longer taught in high school. When I discovered this, I was shocked. I found a stack of old humanities books gathering dust in a forgotten corner of my school. I brushed them off and brought them to class just to save them. I encourage my students to read them, but that’s no substitute for a course.

General English and honors English classes have become dumping grounds for many other courses students should be taking, such as composition, grammar, speech, film, and literature. Instead of offering these courses, though, we just dump them all into English as if they were an afterthought. With so many subjects to cover, it gets more and more difficult to teach deeply.

You can't blame schools for not offering courses when there is no money to pay for them. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing the money for these important courses must have gone for FCAT-related costs. Florida spends a fortune on testing and test prep, so fewer resources are available for a well-rounded education.

We seem to be pro-test, but anti-knowledge.

Old-timers going all the way back to ancient Greece have maintained that it takes a well-rounded education to guide young people into the role of creative problem solvers and leaders who take the initiative. I agree. Some traditions are worth respecting, and a classic, well-rounded education is one of them.

There’s a sad irony at work here.

When we deprive students of a well-rounded education, and train them according to Florida education policy to be bubble-test takers rather than critical thinkers, not only do we rob them of their potential, we rob society of the next generation of its brightest young visionaries.

Well, Vance, there’s a long answer to a short question. But it’s a very good question. Thanks for asking it. Perhaps some of our readers will write in with their definition of a high-quality education.

Next up for discussion: In the Race to the Top program, the feds offer funding if state governments, school districts, and teacher associations pull together to help students grow. What a great idea. Sadly, the Florida Department of Education’s response is to give teachers the brush-off. What can be done to change that? Can education leaders in Florida ever be taught the value of teamwork? How?

Please click on comments and post your answer.

Help build our network by forwarding this blog to teachers, parent groups, and school leaders throughout Central Florida. Please use private email addresses, not school email. Thanks for reading.


  1. Good article, Mike. I especially like the comment about pro-test and anti-knowledge. My students would agree with that. They are so sick of being tested that by the time the FCAT rolls around, they are going to be burned out - and angry.

  2. Mike, It makes me so sad that Humanities books are gathering dust. Bravo, for saving them! Unfortunately, teachers have to use them in a subversive way, because, God forbid, we should actually find the information in them critical to a well rounded education. I truly believe that I spend my days working, so that I can spend my free time enjoying art, literature, music, etc. That's what makes life rich. The education test'em, test'em and then test'em again system, is stealing the joy from our children's lives.

  3. While I most heartily agree with you that "every time a student grows into a self-sufficient, productive adult, the world gets a little better," the primary funders of public education--the feds and the state--appear to have their own ideas of "productive."

    For them, it's all about creating a sustainable stable of future corporate white and gray collar worker-bees. Students are screened for those who test well, willing to put in 10-hour days doing uninspiring work. The rest are marginalized. Neither humanities, liberal studies nor fine arts have much of a place in our increasingly Orwellian workworld. And the brightest, most creative--sans good mentoring and leadership--become the most marginalized of all.

    I also agree with you the fundamentals of a quality education begin at home. Absent kids having access to the basics of quality schooling, concerned parents must go the extra mile and be good role models to their children. Read a book or magazine or newspaper instead of watching Bridezilla. Spend time with "The Decade in Pictures" on the Internet, instead of playing WII Punch-Out. And write your school board and state officials demanding less testing and more of the basics that promote values and self-actualization among young adults.

  4. Now that we have Mike Archers' definition of "high quality education" and it is a well thought out definition, we need an actual definition from the government. If they use such a general phrase they should be willing to provide a clear meaning as to what they mean as a governing body or is the lack of a clearness their way to avoid the issue.