“Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid […]
“Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priest, & nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance,” said Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe in 1786.
According to his biographer Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson was not only passionate about the expansion of his own considerable intellect. The author of the Declaration of Independence also accurately predicted the coming explosion of knowledge in every domain, and an era of new discoveries in science. He also stressed the importance of making that knowledge accessible to all citizens in a participatory democracy. The exponentiation of the compendium of human knowledge continues unabated into this new century, doubling in volume every seven years, or so.
Visiting a school in 2013 with the then new Chief Executive Officer of the Prince George’s County Public Schools, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, we happened upon a fifth grade class in a deep discussion on the principles of genetics and the probabilities of physical traits being passed on from one generation to the next. In my own lifetime, that topic has moved from the high school curriculum back to the elementary school.
Children are learning more, earlier, than ever before in history. The realm of human knowledge has accreted so steadily in recent decades that it is difficult to imagine how the next generation of student will be able manage the volume. A few centuries ago, Milton had reportedly read every text in print at the Oxford library. Today’s learner would be hard pressed to read everything in print on any given discipline in a lifetime devoted solely to reading.
To compete favorably in the Age of Information, all children will need to become proficient researchers and evaluators of resources. Individualized attention from highly effective educators is critical to such an enterprise.
During our travels across school system, the conditions to which the CEO and I bore witness ran the gamut from wondrous to tragic. Phenomenal instruction can still be delivered in heartrending surroundings: we once visited an Advanced Placement English class sporting so many students that the CEO’s party scarcely found space to fit in the room.
Critical to future improvements in learning outcomes for children, we must increase staffing ratios. Universal access to age-appropriate pre-Kindergarten needs to become a priority. A significant decrease in class sizes from kindergarten to the second grade would herald an era of increased one-on-one interactions between teachers and students. These two items would pay grand dividends in later grades.
Making such changes will be, however, expensive. The CEO’s budget request is an incremental first step toward building a world-class school system that serves all children and places our schools in a position to expand on the improvements of the years since the enactment of the Thornton Commission inspired “Bridge to Excellence Act” the central tenet of which was adequacy-and-equity in every classroom. As Dr. Thornton is fond of saying, “These are our babies.”