Educators concerned over too much government control

DOLLAR BAY – Public school officials have to balance the needs of individual students in their districts and state and federal requirements for instruction, but a few local school administrators are concerned there is too much outside control over how they provide that instruction.

Tim Keteri, superintendent/principal at Adams Township School District, Dr. Jan Quarless, superintendent of the Dollar Bay-Tamarack City Area Schools, and John Sanregret, principal of Hancock Central High School, met Wednesday in Quarless’ office to discuss their concerns about what they see as an increase in federal control of local public schools.

Quarless said there is a bill in Congress – the Local School Board Governance and Flexibility Act – which, if approved, would recognize that state governments and local educational agencies should have the greatest amount of control over education, and would prohibit the federal Secretary of Education from putting requirements on local school districts, except in certain circumstances.

“My reaction to this was positive, that at least there’s a discussion by our Congress,” he said. “It seems to me at least they’re aware of the fact that this jurisdiction, nationally, I think is problematic.”

Quarless said the idea a representative from the federal government can know what’s best for local students is wrong.

“How can you educate kids from a distance when you don’t know our kids?” he asked. “That’s a sore spot for me.”

Currently 45 states have adopted a curriculum guide known as the Common Core State Standards for English and mathematics, which was created in 2010 by the National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State State School Officers. It was intended to help students be prepared for college.

However, Sanregret said Common Core and various federal mandates for education don’t allow local districts to make adjustments for students who may have no desire to go to college, but may rather take vocational education classes, for instance.

“There seems to be this one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. “Every student’s an individual. You (have) to tailor an approach that fits their goals and their passions and their strengths and their interests.”

If students aren’t interested in what they’re being taught, Sanregret said they may not do well if they choose to go to college.

Because of state or federal requirements, many school districts put a strong emphasis on a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum.

Sanregret said although he thinks STEM is good for some students, forcing other students to focus on those classes, may not be the best for those students.

“It’s going to set them up to be very unhappy,” he said. “If you funnel all the kids through the same system it’s almost doomed to fail.”

Quarless said in the 1960s, a national movement began to increase STEM-type education taught in local schools with intent to lead the world in scientific and technological efforts.

“It was with the idea that not everyone was going to be a mathematician or scientist,” he said. “There was still a great deal more flexibility in pursuing your interests.”

Up until the 1980s, Quarless said local schools recognized the individuality of students when setting up their class schedules.

“Sometime in the 90s, it changed,” he said.

Sanregret said when he went to high school in the 1980s, he had a very diverse curriculum, taking such classes as physics, woodshop, chemistry and home economics, and he still appreciates that diversity. The only required classes were government, civics and physical education.

“You had freedom as a student,” he said.

That flexibility to choose classes doesn’t exist for current students, Sanregret said.

“I don’t know that that’s healthy,” he said.

Keteri said the current emphasis on curriculum may not be helpful for many students.

“We should be focusing on learning,” he said. “There’s a lot of different ways people learn.”

Keteri said it doesn’t matter what goal a student may have, the purpose of schools should be to help them reach those goals.

Because of government mandates for curricula, Keteri said students may not be learning how to learn, which is an ability they would be able to use their whole lives.

“If they let us have the flexibility to teach learning, I think we would be more successful, and it wouldn’t matter where these kids go,” he said.

Sanregret said because of the curriculum requirements, many students just want to pass a class to be able to move on to the next class needed to graduate.

Keteri said that mentally starts as early as elementary school.

“We’re teaching them how to be programmed, in a way,” he said.

Keteri said he’s not opposed to some level of standards

“You need to go back and evaluate if you’re being effective,” he said. “You need standards. What I’m saying is the standards being set are tunneled.”

The current standards have too narrow a definition of success, Keteri said.

Quarless said the main reason local school district officials feel they have to follow the mandated curriculum is because if they don’t, they’ll risk losing state and federal funding or be designated as a failed school system.

Officials in each school district have the best interest of their students in mind, Quarless said, so they should be allowed to set standards as they think best for the students.

“We don’t need the state or the feds to tell us what those standards need to be,” he said. “We are all educators with integrity, academic knowledge and familiarity of what is needed in education.”

Local schools will set standards, which will be best for their students, Quarless said.

“Those standards are going to be extremely high,” he said. “We’re not going to lower the bar.”

Quarless said with the current emphasis on STEM and Common Core curricula, arts classes may be given less emphasis, which could negatively affect students who would like to pursue the arts.

“The Core curriculum has minimized creativity in those areas,” he said.

Keteri said the college graduation rate of about 27 percent hasn’t changed in many years, but school curricula change constantly.

“That college success rate is lock solid,” he said.

Local administrators aren’t opposed to science and technical standards in their curricula, but there should be more to them, Keteri said.

“There needs to be other options to go with that,” he said.

Quarless said the people creating the STEM and Common Core requirements are well-intended, but long-distance management of local districts isn’t effective.

Keteri agreed with that sentiment.

“We do know what’s best for the kids in our district, and all we want is the opportunity to do it,” he said.

Local school boards of education are in place to oversee how school districts are run, and Quarless said they know better than officials in Lansing or Washington, D.C. what a district’s needs are.

Sanregret said the members of local boards of education and district faculty and staff are doing what they do because they want what is best for students.

“We all care about the kids in our district, and we want them to get an education that’s going to bring them happiness and success,” he said.