Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"O.K. Johnny, Explain Your Idea."

The Punahou School, set on 76-acres of hearty tropical grass with lush bushes highlighting startling flowers and huge banyan trees, is a truly beautiful school. The K-12 school, founded in 1841, feels more like a college campus and has an exotic mix of the scholarly and a laid-back Hawaiian-style. Barack Obama is the first U.S. President to come from Punahou, Hawaii's top independent school.
I recently sauntered through the Punahou campus and noted how fortunate students attending there are. Fresh fruits and vegetables are standard fare for lunch; windows are huge and most teachers leave their doors wide open. Elementary classrooms have their own little backyard for children to move in and out of; junior high students may choose to study Spanish, Latin, Mandarin Chinese or Japanese. But really, what makes these students extra "lucky" to be at Punahou is that each student is seen as her own person, full of potential, abilities and gifts to share with the world. Students at Punahou are there to gain skills to fulfill a bigger purpose, bigger than receiving a world class education. They are there to learn what they need to, to contribute to society and make their mark on the world. Their parents have big dreams. Their teachers have big jobs. The children know the school will serve them well.

President Obama experienced a quality education. Like many other U.S. Presidents of the past, he aims to improve American public education while in office. The job is huge. Some argue it isn't even possible at this point. Former public school teacher turned education activist, John Taylor Gatto says:

We must wake up to what our [public] schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants.

Children at Punahou are expected to lead someday. Children in the typical public school may have different expectations. To begin real positive change in public schooling, the grand picture of its actual function must be created, written and burned into the memory of every citizen. The basis for this change lies in what is best in American culture. The United States arguably houses the most innovation friendly culture the earth has ever seen.

Could public schools channel the beauty of American flexibility and openness of mind to improve the individual lives of its citizens and even the entire world?

Could the function of American education be to provide humanity with hordes of great contributors?

Must American education differentiate itself from that of other nations?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

Barack Obama has said a lot about American public education. But the key, the gleam of hope in his ideas on education lies in his comments on assessment. Obama says:

I will provide funds for states to implement a broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students’ abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas.

Obama hopes American students will soon be taught and tested to present and defend their ideas. That is a different and truly American idea in education. Americans serve, not by being "good listeners" but through contribution.

More power to you and good luck, Mr. President.

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