, Port Arthur, Texas


October 3, 2012

Reforming education top to bottom

PORT ARTHUR — If a group of smart people, each with degrees in health, English, history, philosophy, or music were given a hundred barrels of unrefined oil and given the challenge of making that oil usable to make a 2012 BMW run properly, many, if not most, of them would have a problem finding a way to do it.   Many teachers are given such a responsibilities of taking 20-30 unrefined children and to drawing or otherwise separating out the ingredients that can make a society work.  But many, if not most, have had little training in making crude, unrefined children ready for service.  And the conclusion is too often drawn that doctors, nurses, engineers, scientists, teachers, lawyers, business entrepreneurs and other refined products that are essential for a viable society are not there.

Southeast Texas knows how to refine oil.   But at one time it had no oil, and no knowledge of how to refine it. But when the many uses of petroleum were discovered, everybody with oil either refined it or found somebody who could, and eventually oil all over the world came to be refined essentially the same way.  And because successful ways of extracting the products of petroleum were copied in different locations all over the world, we drive cars, fly planes, and run trains and trucks, and reap other benefits of that shared means of refinement.  No excuse is made for the fact that some oil is harder to refine than others, that some of it comes from undesirable places (coming from the "wrong" kinds of homes so to speak.)  They learned to make adjustments, so that both sweet and sour crude could be successfully refined, though not in exactly the same way.

This analogy could easily have been building bridges like the Golden Gate, sky scrapers like the Empire State Building, finding cure for dread diseases, or transplanting organs.  People learn to do what needs to be done by refusing to accept what others say cannot be done.  They say it can't be done, yet.   Children are told that they can’t solve the problems, yet, that they can't properly interpret passages, yet.  The message is never that it can't be done.  The message always should be "I can't do it yet."  Maybe after a few more minutes or hours or days of thinking about it, I'll get it.  And even if I don't solve this problem, my minds will be in better condition to solve the next one, simply because of the time spent exercising it by trying to solve the previous ones.

Teaching is a problem-solving activity.  Some teachers, because of self-motivation to be successful or because of concern for the children they teach, learn on their own how to solve this problem of refining the curiosity, the skills-potentials, and the attitudes of the children they teach.  Other teachers learn how to do it by going to colleges and universities that teach them to do it.  Still other teachers learn it from fellow teachers, while others learn to do it from their instructional leaders within their schools or school districts who either teach or model for them how to do it.

There are children who will learn well despite the teacher's method of teaching or attitudes toward the children they teach.  All some children need is the opportunity to learn and a reasonable effort by teachers to cause it to happen.  But just as there are established methods that can refine different types of petroleum and strategies for building bridges across different expanses of land or water, there are ways can span the gaps in learning abilities and learning styles and make all children successful.  Maximum success for certain students may require small variations which may be different in dealing with different children.   Different strategies may be needed to motivate some children.  Some children may need boosts in confidence by first being exposed to learning opportunities that guarantee early success.  When time and effort result in success, that success breeds a desire for success and the confidence that time and effort will be rewarded.  It works for student and teacher.

But every oil refinery can tell you how it produces its products, from the design, construction and operation of a cracking unit to quality control of the products the processes  generates.  

Every construction company or engineer can show you its plan for building a bridge.  They can describe for you everything that will be done from preparing the ground to laying the foundations to laying the final slab.  Everyone who has the time and is interested enough can see on a daily basis the rise of a skyscraper, from the laying of pilings to the floor levels ascending skyward until the final brick is laid.  No one who is interested has to wonder if the bridge or sky scrapper is being built.

Just as oil can be refined, bridges and buildings can be built by using the strategies and designs that have been successfully used by others, and just as there are plans and evidence of progress, why can’t educators in our schools do the same?  Or perhaps a better question is:  Why don't they or why won't they do any better?

For one thing, few schools or school districts have plans for educating children that can be shown and explained to patrons.  I'm talking about processes that are written on paper and demonstrated on video tape, showing how children are taught and evaluated, how instructional and testing procedures are evaluated and what changes have been made to fix recent deficiencies in what children are taught and how well they are learning.  

Any board of education should be able to show patrons a detailed plan, developed by it and its superintendent, which describes how children are taught and the roles, effectiveness and modes of evaluation of the board, the superintendent, assistant superintendents, supervisors, principals and teachers. The board isn’t really interested in children if they are not continuously asking to see the plan and expecting credible evidence about how well the plan is working.

Taxpayers who care about the district's children also will want answers.

Ronald C. Spooner of Port Arthur is a retired educator. Contact Spooner at He blogs at

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