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Dennis Myers: a solution that is seeking a problem

Last week, four national television networks simulcast the same program, “XQ Super School Live.”

XQ refers to an arm of the Emerson Collective, the organization founded by Steve Jobs’ widow, who endowed it to “disrupt” the secondary education system. Why Big Media joined in on this crusade is unclear.

Something called the Entertainment Industry Foundation was a part of the production, presumably instrumental in supplying more than thirty mostly-midlevel celebrities to glitz up the sales pitch. Variety, the show business newspaper, reported that a Foundation statement read, “High schools must be rethought and reshaped so every student can succeed in college, career and life.”

They must? Why?

According to actor Samuel L. Jackson, it’s because, “For the past 100 years America’s high schools have remained virtually unchanged, yet the world around us has transformed dramatically.” Jackson voiced this narrative professionally, which helped obscure the fact that it’s not true. A century ago, less than 15 percent of the country attended high school and less than 20 percent of them graduated.

Laurene Powell Jobs, an Apple billionaire, wants the high school to be retooled for the 21st century.

Actor Julius Tennon says, “It’s really, really important that communities all across our country come together and realize how important it is to rethink and reshape the way we’re educating our kids.” Neither of them seem to realize that they are describing goals that have already been accomplished and continue to be accomplished perpetually. High school has been redesigned repeatedly.

XQ Super School is the latest education fad. Big Media and interest groups are always feeding us school fads.

In January 1988, under the headline “Is getting tough the answer?” Time magazine put baseball bat-carrying New Jersey principal Joe Clark on its cover. In December 2008, under the headline, “How to fix America’s schools,” Time put broom-carrying D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee on its cover.

An earlier billionaire, Eli Broad, endowed an academy that trains educators to run schools like businesses.

In Nevada there is an “empowerment” fad being tried. Some prescribe “performance pay” for teachers.

Other critics swallow myths which are demonstrably false: Schools are violent. Charter schools perform better than public schools. Parents are fleeing public schools for private schools. Graduates don’t have skills for the job market. Funding for schools has been increased, to no avail. So the myths go.

Now the celebs tell us high schools are static, rooted in the 20th century, which suggests they have not set foot in a high school lately. Certainly, high school looks unlike it did when I graduated in 1968.

Education scholar Jack Schneider wrote in the Washington Post last week: “Schoolhouse desks do look largely the same. Students mostly sit in rows. And teachers generally do most of the talking. But a century ago, almost everything else was different. Teachers were largely untrained. Rote memorization was the rule.

Students brought a hodgepodge of books from home and were instructed in an unpredictable range of content. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common. Greek and Latin still ruled the day. Students of color, when educated, were denied equal access. In short, though some of the basic outline may be familiar, a school of the past would seem almost comically strange to students of the present.”

So where are the schools that are still locked into the last century?

“We’re going big, baby!” Tennon says. “Dream big, dream fierce!”

If he wants big, he might take a close look at what already happens. In school districts across the United States, school boards, administrators, parents, teachers and students manage to graduate more than four out of every five students from more than 26,000 high schools a diploma within four years of their starting the ninth grade, an all-time low for dropout levels. That is 83 percent graduate nationally.

Regretfully, that figure in Nevada is 71 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but that low ranking is peculiar to our state, not a reflection on the institution of high school. Only one other state is lower.

In other words, what the television program seeks is already here. It’s a dream come true if Tennon wants to open his eyes and see it. A successful public school system keeps the nation’s economy turning. A successful system that still needs support is there for the celebrities and billionaires to get involved with if they want to do more than agitate.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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