OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Education disconnect

Education can be both a deliverable (a body of knowledge and learning acquired by a student) and a system (the school facilities, bureaucracy, administration, teaching staff, curriculum and operations protocols).

It's thus possible to have very poor and very good education at the same time in the same place.

That also means one can simultaneously be pro-education and anti-education--for student learning and against perpetuating a system that doesn't deliver it--which dilutes and confuses discussions about the subject.

No one ever stood up and said: "Here's an idea! Let's create a state-run public school with K-12 required attendance for all the kids in town, invest $140,000 or so of taxpayers' money on every child's learning to age 18, and present diplomas upon graduation to nine out of 10 students who don't test as proficient and struggle with functional literacy."

That's a supremely bad idea that no elected body would support, no parent would tolerate and no serious educator would ever propose--much less champion.

It's also the reality in Pine Bluff. The fact that it was nobody's intention doesn't mitigate the truth that education in its first sense is not being provided or received.

On the other hand, with a $140,000 K-12 budget per pupil, assuming 3,500 students or so, that's an enterprise spending half-a-billion dollars every baker's dozen years. An annual budget of $40 million more than pays for several campuses full of fine buildings, good salaries for hundreds of teachers, staff and administrators, lots of athletics programs and a better-than-decent investment in technology.

With that kind of money, the school district may have lots to be proud of and point to as "success" operationally. Education as a system might be healthy, even exemplary in some ways.

But a system that results in most of its students getting short-changed educationally while the bureaucracy swims in money is an acute, if inadvertent, perversion of pedagogical theory.

It's human nature for those working in the education system to resist change if they believe they're doing their jobs individually in fulfilling duties, obligations and policy.

After all, public education is foundational to our republic. It's a treasured ideal from our visionary founders for which we all should have expressed gratitude on yesterday's holiday with roots from the same Revolutionary Era.

But when lofty principles don't translate into practical application, change is required.

Most importantly, a system in extreme failure requires extreme modification--which is inherently disruptive and pushes people out of their comfort zones.

In Pine Bluff, small or incremental changes are not going to create the radical progress differential necessary to triple or quadruple proficiency and literacy.

Let me stress here that I'm only using Pine Bluff as a representative example of many schools with similar learning failures. I'm not singling out the district for criticism; on the contrary, I'm showcasing it specifically because I'm rooting for them. I admire local energy and efforts there to revitalize. Improving educational performance at their school will have positive, repeatable ramifications elsewhere.

The state education department has historically tried to apply uniformity in school district financing, management, curriculum and operations across communities that are anything but uniform. Yet districts are often so vastly different as to be almost opposites in terms of socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of families and students.

Teachers in most districts aren't dealing with 80 or 90 percent non-proficiency. To them, fears of radical change may be driven by rightful worries about fixing what isn't broken in their schools.

But some schools are definitely broken. Wholesale opposition to LEARNS can sound a lot like a call to revert to the status quo. How would that help students in Pine Bluff?

If anything, the status quo was proof-positive that our existing education system struggles to deliver in communities suffering from higher incidences of poverty, broken families, unemployment and overall economic decline.

Either we change that system to devise a way to be more successful at educating kids coming from those backgrounds, or we deem its limitation--and the lack of learning for kids in such communities--as acceptable.

One LEARNS supplemental idea would be to categorize schools and districts, and then direct major overhaul measures (with intervention-level innovations and funding) where the need is greatest. It is no doubt true that some communities need various LEARNS initiatives more than others. Why not have LEARNS Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3? Maybe include opt-outs and waivers for successful schools that already lead in performance metrics and measures.

A lawyer friend tells me that would likely invoke disallowed "separate but equal" sentiments, but surely where there's a will there's a way if we could all get refocused on the sole purpose of a free and public education system: educating all kids.

When a large majority of students attend classes for 13 years and wind up uneducated, the local school system is depriving them of the basic learning skills necessary for productive citizenship. They face the same deficiencies and challenges as if they'd never gone to school.

That's not okay. And it's certainly not education.

Opponents say LEARNS won't help those kids. What they need to say is what will.

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.