Education column: Does it pass the common-sense test?

David Gamberg during a school board meeting in Southold. (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson, file)
David Gamberg during a school board meeting in Southold. (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson, file)

What would make the most sense about developing and promoting the necessary ingredients for a high-quality public education system in the United States? Would it be an agenda made up of the highest standards possible? Of course, but in and of itself this would fall short of a full-bodied agenda for success.

Recently, I was at a luncheon where a group of people were exploring how we could have schools adopt policies and practices that would allow children to experience more learning through the use of school gardens, and how those gardens would naturally provide more healthful food as part of a nutritious lunch for all. It would seem that this could also be a small part of a common-sense approach to the policies of all schools.

Think about what is done at some of the most prestigious private schools. At Sidwell Friends School the philosophy of the program is stated as follows: “Our curriculum is grounded in teaching students about the natural world and their relationship to it.” Education analyst and historian Diane Ravitch recently reminded us of what John Dewey suggested — what is good for some in a community is what we want for all: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all of the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” It is in this vein that we must carefully examine how to proceed in any agenda to improve education.

The problem we have today isn’t high standards or not; it is our hyper-focus on the brand known as Common Core and the associative high-stakes testing that accompany that brand. It has crowded out so much in what common sense tells us about how to craft a healthy and powerful set of practices that would benefi t all children. A school “diet” that not only nourishes the body, but also the mind and the soul would do more to promote student achievement than any packaged set of high standards that we see today. The Common Core does not provide such nourishment. Let me explain.

If children were to get the requisite time to play (where by law in Finland children must have 15 minutes of play for every 45 minutes of instruction), they would perform better. If children took the time to be out in the fresh air exploring the wonder and magic of how vegetables and fl owers grow from tiny seeds into mature, healthy and vibrant produce and things of utter beauty, they would learn how to care, be careful and be respectful of many things they face in other aspects of life and learning. If children could not only focus on a diet heavily fortifi ed with math and English Language Arts (not to mention test prep and testing), but rather experience a balanced diet of civics, the arts, movement and curiosity for its own sake (not necessarily ending with a grade), think how well they might perform on the former?

These are the common-sense elements in some of the most effective and best-performing schools, like those found in Finland. The health and well-being of children there translate into high performance and a readiness of its young citizens, who are prepared for 21st century work and learning.

Eight-, 9-, and 10-year-olds who are forming the habits of mind and body that are the foundation for lifelong learning would be better served by a common-sense agenda for schools. Common sense tells us that healthy children are better prepared for the rigors they will undertake as they grow into mature students. Don’t be misled by false claims that purport to have us believe that college and career readiness can be garnered through high scores on standardized tests at this tender age of childhood development.

There are other elements of a common-sense agenda that we must honor. Building relationships both within and outside the schoolhouse is one such element. While seemingly the softer side of building organizational capacity, a learning community that fails to bolster and strengthen trust is not one that is on the path of sustainable greatness. It is more important now than ever to work with families, and not against them, to have children gain access to more opportunities to care about the wide range of experiences that are part of a healthful childhood and not a narrow band of “measurable data points.” Give them more time to explore the world of their own imagination and passions, not less. No set of secret and highly secure tests designed to promote or destroy schools and teachers will accomplish this. It’s common sense.

It should not be too diffi cult to see that the current agenda is doing more harm than good. Rooted in the belief that we must disrupt the status quo at all costs and establish a highly competitive marketplace for developing teacher competency and student achievement, the metrics used today to sort and select winners is medicine that will kill the patient. Usurping the public will in the process of “promoting” a bold new world of what is good for the children of a community and a nation is as unwise as it is ill-suited to building confi dence in our public schools.

Common sense is not a 19th- or 20th-century idea whose time has come and gone. It is not dismissive of hard work and an openness to see powerful new ways of fi nding success, as though these are qualities that are owned by those who want to conquer ineffectiveness and low achievement through some magic elixir of technology and competition. Even if one were to support a belief that we have found the Holy Grail of high-quality standards that came to be in the Common Core, we would be ill-advised to be lured into a false sense of thinking that this is the locomotive that will drive change.

The alternative may be messy, perhaps because it lacks the slickness of a Madison Avenue advertisement for a “new and improved” way to educate children, but that is no reason to shy away from doing all we must do to promote the best in children, in educators and for the families of every community in America. To do less is to fail the test of common sense.

David Gamberg is superintendent of the Southold School District. Beginning in July, he will also serve as superintendent in Greenport.