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Medford public education: a fresh view

The Medford public school system is failing: failing students (67 percent graduation rate); failing parents (student exodus from public schools to charter schools, private schools and home schooling); failing teachers (striking); and failing taxpayers (budgets in the red, continual appeals for more tax dollars).

Who is at fault? I maintain it is not students, parents, teachers, taxpayers, or even the administration or the School Board. All are well- intentioned, capable, and sincere in their efforts to educate our children.

The problem is decades of stagnant productivity. Over the past century virtually every area of human endeavor has experienced enormous increases in productivity. The labor hours required to produce food, manufacture a car, write a letter, fill a tooth, calculate, communicate, etc., are fractions of the past. In public education, however, we are blindly locked into the Same Old Way (SOW) of delivering education practiced a hundred years ago: one teacher with 22 kids.

Our myopic belief precludes expectations of productivity improvement. Yet, we are surrounded with new, innovative education methods, and have web access to search engines that find information on almost any subject in an instant. But just as government has locked the options for the U.S Postal Service, we have locked our schools to the old ways. And while the SOW (one teacher/22 kids) served us well for many decades, the economic vise of wage and benefit increases makes that unaffordable. We struggle to pay for the old-time batch process while the educational equivalents of Federal Express, UPS, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter surge by us.

So what can we do? One possible option would be to adopt the methods used in the medical field. A century ago, doctors came to a patient's home, took X-rays, drew blood, gave shots and ran tests. Today doctors examine the patient, review data and prescribe a course of action. Medicine or therapy is largely delivered by nurses and assistants, and testing is done by specialists. Today a doctor treats 10 times the patients he or she could a century ago and does a much better job.

What if we applied the medical model to public education? We would treat our teachers as if they were medical doctors and provide trained teaching assistants (nurse equivalents) and automated testing systems (X-ray, therapists). A teacher plus four assistants delivering education to 100 students would be much less expensive than the four teachers it takes now. Teachers could be given a major raise (more than 30 percent) and supplied with information-age teaching tools, and the cost would still be lower!

Just as it is inefficient for doctors to take X-rays or blood samples, it is inefficient for teachers to administer and grade tests, deliver repetitive lectures or monitor assemblies, recess or study hall. Their real contribution, like doctors, is building and improving the system: developing educational plans, preparing new content and monitoring the data that indicates what is working and what is not.

Efficiency alone, however, is not enough. We want students to do better in reading, math, writing and social competence. Strategies exist for achieving better outcomes for our kids, but too often the barrier to adopting these "evidence-based practices" is the SOW. This "medical" approach would improve the efficiency and quality and our educational system.

Everyone wins with this approach (just as we all benefit by the improved medical approach). Teachers could craft specialized teaching approaches that fit the needs of each student. The flexibility of the system would appeal to the educational goals of parents, and suddenly the public school system would become more attractive than alternatives. Teachers would have the freedom and responsibility for which they are educated and equipped, and they would be compensated in line with other professionals.

Critics might say, "Our kids need the touch of a real teacher." 1. A "real teacher" would still be in control (just as a doctor is in control in the hospital). 2. Children will still have the "hands-on" contact with caring, supportive, trained adults that they need according to age and level of development. 3. The ratio of adult to student would actually improve with this plan.

This approach requires fewer professional teachers, but we have commitments to our present staff. By replacing retiring teachers with teaching assistants we could, over a decade, and school by school, implement this plan without ever having to put fully qualified teachers out of work.

As Medford's public education program moves forward past our present strike, we can decide whether to keep the SOW — strikes every few years, ongoing angst, anger, distrust and poor outcomes for our kids, teachers, administrators, board and taxpayers. Or we can explore a new approach that incorporates productivity improvements as well as educational improvements.

James Horner of the Applegate Valley, a retired vice president and general manager for Hewlett-Packard and Agilen, is a member of the Medford School District Budget Committee. His father was a teacher, principal and superintendent for the David Douglas School District, and his brother is a professor of education at the University of Oregon.