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Mecklenburg trustees take look at shorter school day

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Meet the new boss / May 15, 2013
Take something as simple as the school day: not all that simple, actually. Four periods or seven? That was the question that arose in March as the School Board looked to change the high school and middle school class schedules in ways that would have significant impact on a number of programs, band most prominent among them. The controversy that ensued points up a fundamental truth about the art of class scheduling: all options have their upsides and downsides. There are no perfect choices.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton initially pushed for a four-by-four block schedule before backing down — somewhat — due to the outcry that mostly erupted around the band programs at Bluestone and Park View, which no longer would have been offered over back-to-back semesters. (The new schedule would limit the number of elective courses that students could take.) Thornton is notoriously a “my-way-or-the-highway” school chief, but even he had to yield to the popularity of band. To his credit, he came back with the alternative of a seven-period schedule, which would for allow continuous band instruction throughout the school year. The School Board approved.

What, really, is this fuss over scheduling all about? There are two responses to this question: one wonky, one personal. I’ll tackle the wonky aspect first, at the risk of doing violence to the finer points of education policy and boring everyone to tears in the process. The case for longer class periods essentially boils down to how you think subject matter should be taught: in the old school (sorry for the pun) style or in richer, more contextualized, putatively more challenging fashion. The buzzword phrase to look for here is “21st century education,” which, you must admit, sounds better than the alternative.

I have a lot of sympathy for what educators, not just Thornton, are trying to achieve by rejiggering the school day. I remember vividly being a student, way, way back in the day, and suffering through a multitude of boring classes — none duller than history, a subject that especially seemed to lend itself to abysmal teaching at the high school level. So what would I declare as my college major? You guessed it. History is a field rich with discovery and wonder — which means, naturally, that I’m very receptive to the argument that the familiar way of teaching the subject, by cramming a useless accumulation of memorized dates and facts and overly-pat storylines into daily 50-minute class periods, needs to go.

Longer class blocks ought to allow for a vastly improved learning experience, so long as the teaching part is handled properly. The four-by-four block schedule also is well suited to vocational education, where hands-on instruction requires time and patience but delivers better results. But you’ll have a hard time convincing me that math should be taught over long class periods, or for only one semester a year, instead of two, which is often the case under the four-by-four block schedule. Math is more easily digested in small, regularly-administered, spoon-fed portions, like baby food. Trying to stuff too much down the gullet all at once works for algebra students about as well as it does for eight-month-olds.

Thornton’s top instructional priorities are Project-Based Learning, and dual enrollment, a curriculum that allows high school students to earn college credit through the (purported) teaching of community college-level material at the secondary level. It’s easy to see why Thornton, with these changes in mind, would be pushing for major revisions to the school day. All this constitutes a defensible policy choice, but to make his agenda work, Thornton needs the willingness of all involved to buy into his approach, and to accept that education should be practiced in new ways.

This is where the personal side of the tale comes in. I don’t doubt for a second that the numerous testimonials accusing Thornton of being a raging bully — see Steve Spain Sr.’s letter to the editor, for your latest example — are true. I’ll go further and say that the dictatorial style exemplified by Thornton has become a feature, not a bug, built into the programming of the modern-day school superintendent. It’s almost as if mad scientists toiling away at the Best Practices Laboratory had invented a creature that was one part Frankenstein, one part Dracula, and Rasputin through-and-through, hung the title of doctor in front of its name and told the monster to go whip the nearest local school system in line. Blood-curdling ruthlessness rocks!

The adoption of 21st century learning, one would think, would lead society towards a different, gentler model for the modern-day chief executive. Apparently not, judging from the widespread application of the leadership style across various disciplines. But here again, in fairness to Thornton, culture change is difficult — and the complexity of the task is only heightened by the faddishness that rules the education world. First it was high-stakes testing. Now it’s the impending arrival of the Common Core standards, which are supposed to incorporate all the academic requirements of the status quo while compelling higher forms of thinking, i.e. everything that doesn’t fall under the category of rote memorization. All this harkens back to something I discovered about education once I left high school and went off to college: There really are ways to make the learning experience incredibly exciting and rewarding. But do any of the currently fashionable approaches represent a way to get there?

Let’s return to the subject of band: It’s one of the few genuinely superior programs that Bluestone and Park View offer to their students. How, then, does it make sense to downgrade the middle school feeder programs? I suspect it does not. On a similar note, I was greatly saddened to learn of the departure of Mecklenburg County’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, Mike Greene, from Park View High School at the end of the current school year. I know Mike best in his role as Park View’s baseball coach — he also teaches math — but even on the ballfield, I don’t think I’ve ever had an extended conversation with him where his appreciation for education didn’t shine through. In particular, I remember an away game when his Dragon ball club showed up late. When I mentioned the delay in the start time, Greene pointed out that Mecklenburg County schools maintained the longest school day of any division in Region 8. This was expressed as a point of pride, not irritation, as you might’ve expected from a baseball coach. Typical Mike.

Thornton must be careful to preserve the finer aspects of Mecklenburg County Public Schools — and not destroy them — as he attempts to shake up all that which is moribund about the system. I have a hard time making the full leap onto the dump-Thornton bandwagon because there are many positive things he has accomplished as superintendent, with teacher pay increases and a commitment from the Board of Supervisors to improve facilities sitting at the top of the list. However, his curriculum ambitions inspire less confidence, and his method of implementation — including the alleged tendency to run over people — could undo his entire tenure. The superintendent may enjoy the confidence of the School Board trustees, but ultimately that group must answer to the voters. Even the boss has to behave in the company of other bosses.

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