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Editorial: Poised on the brink of opportunity


The sign outside the remains of Joplin High School (AP)

Default Lines column, July/August 2011 edition of eSchool News—In Joplin, Mo., officials are hard at work this summer trying to recover from the devastating effects of the tornado that leveled much of the town in May.

According to a June 22 story from The Associated Press (AP), the tornado hit the school system especially hard: It killed seven students and one teacher and destroyed three school buildings, including the town’s only public high school. Seven other schools were badly damaged.

Now, district leaders are trying to recover in time for the start of school Aug. 17. Many classes will have to meet in vacant buildings, and officials are scrambling to ensure there are enough supplies. But the district’s rebirth has become a rallying point for the entire community, AP reports—and the tragedy has given the town a unique opportunity to reinvent how it provides education moving forward.

With the loss of Joplin High, which served 2,200 students, district leaders say they want to do more than just rebuild: They envision a state-of-the-art building that could establish Joplin as a hub of innovation.

Other recent columns by Editor Dennis Pierce:

Why poor results from a national civics exam shouldn’t be a surprise

Attack on public school employees will hurt students, too

Opinion: This ‘Superman’ doesn’t fly

District officials recently invited a panel of education thought leaders to a wide-ranging discussion of how the new Joplin High School can emerge better than ever, AP reports. Among the goals that surfaced: more personalized learning and collaboration with the Franklin Technology Center, a vocational training site that also was destroyed.

“We need to let ourselves be free to dream,” Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer told AP.

While Joplin officials struggle to rethink education in their own community, a related discussion is going on halfway across the country. In the nation’s capital, lawmakers are grappling with how to re-envision the nine-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, the nation’s chief education law.

Although its effects aren’t even remotely as tragic as the terrible aftermath of the twister that tore through Joplin, killing more than 150 people, NCLB has unleashed a metaphorical storm of its own on the nation’s schools, its critics say.

The consequences of this “storm” include a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on reading and math, at the expense of other core subjects such as science and social studies. They also include a “dumbing down” of state standards, and a wave of cheating scandals that have implicated school district officials in Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Pennsylvania; and elsewhere. (We’ll have a full report on these scandals, their fallout, and what they say about American public education in our September issue.)

Perhaps the biggest blow NCLB has delivered is a general lack of faith in our public schools that isn’t wholly justified. As Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, writes in his “Learning Leadership” column this month: “America’s public education system is the best that it has ever been. … But the growing number of schools failing to make AYP, not because of a lack of academic achievement but because of flaws in the accountability model, adds to the perception of general failure.”

As in Joplin, the nation’s leaders have a critical opportunity to reinvent the future of education. eSchool News readers have weighed in with their own thoughts on how the revised education law should look, as well as their best ideas for school reform. Now, it’s up to lawmakers to make sure the next version of NCLB strikes the right balance between flexibility and accountability, while leading education boldly into the future.

Outside the remains of what used to be Joplin High School, AP reported, someone used duct tape to transform a sign missing all but two letters from the word “JOPLIN”—from “OP” into “HOPE.” Here’s hoping our nation’s leaders have some of the same courage personified in Joplin to set aside their differences and work together to craft a common vision that makes all of our schools even better than before.

Other recent columns by Editor Dennis Pierce:

Why poor results from a national civics exam shouldn’t be a surprise

Attack on public school employees will hurt students, too

Opinion: This ‘Superman’ doesn’t fly

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Dennis Pierce

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