Burden on American public schools growing

School curriculum has expanded nearly 100 percent while length of day, resources stay essentially the same

In 1640, the Massachusetts Puritans established schools to teach basic reading, some writing and arithmetic and to cultivate values that served a democratic society.

More than three centuries later, 63 items were added to the list of subjects schools were required to incorporate into their curriculum, including conflict mediation, drug and alcohol abuse education, consumer education and special education, to name a few.

"If you look at the last 100 years, it's just unbelievable the increase in expectations for schools," said Pete Bergmann, Moffat County School District Superintendent. "The last three decades have really been the mushroom of them all."

Starting in the 1980s, computer education and multi-cultural awareness and heritage were added to school curriculums.

"The biggest challenge educators face today is this expanded role schools must take in preparing students for society," Bergmann said. "How do we do more with less?"

Though what schools provide students has changed, most districts have not expanded the hours of the school day or the number of school days per year, according to Jamie Vollmer, author of "The Increasing Burden on America's Public Schools."

In the last three decades, sexual abuse prevention education, drug and alcohol abuse education and behavioral adjustment classes were added to school curriculums.

"Every time there is a societal issue, schools are called on to make it better," Bergmann said.

Following the Columbine High School shootings were mandates that schools teach conflict resolution. As teen pregnancies soared, sexual education, teen pregnancy and general health classes were added or enhanced. Following an increase in date- and teen-related assaults were classes in sexual abuse prevention, and teachers were mandated to monitor students for signs of abuse.

In the 1970s a change in family structure -- a decrease in two-parent families and the number of families with one stay-at-home parent -- pushed more responsibilities onto school districts.

"I don't think it's the job of school districts to do what traditionally have been parents' jobs, but before we can educate students, we have to deal with their social and emotional well-being," Bergmann said. "I think we have an obligation to society to do the best we can with all these issues, but don't make us do more with less, without fully funding teachers and education."

As the role of schools changes, so do teaching methods.

"Time is becoming our most valuable as well as our most limited resource," Bergmann said. "We don't want to turn our backs on important issues, but at the same time we're being forced to stand back and take a look at what's important."

It's a balancing act, he said, and because the responsibilities of educators have expanded so much, the core curriculum -- reading, writing, math and science -- are suffering.

"Educators are trying to meet the challenge by the integration of curriculum," Bergmann said. "The challenge is to work smarter, not harder."

To meet a variety of needs, educators are changing the way they teach. Instead of focusing on one subject at a time, teachers combine subjects. They'll teach reading using a science textbook at the elementary school level, Bergmann said. Or, they'll teach children to use a computer by running a reading or math program.

In 2001, state-mandated tests became part of a school-accountability push, which forced educators to return their focus to a core curriculum, but the additional responsibilities were not lessened.

"There was a legislative mandate to raise graduation rates, get better attendance and higher achievement," Bergmann said. "A lot of these are unfunded mandates."

He said coping isn't always easy from a budgeting standpoint but that prioritizing is key. That means making research-based decisions on how that money will best be spent.

"It's critical that we look at where our money gives us the most bang for our buck and carefully evaluate how we use our dollars," he said.

Students, Bergmann said, have few problems adjusting to curriculum changes. Parents do.

"Parents relate to what their education was like and now we're locked into our vocations and don't see the need for changes in education," he said. "We're trying to prepare these kids for a global economy and a shrinking world."

The problem is that preparation takes time, money and resources that school districts alone are having trouble finding.

"People want it all, but it all doesn't fit," Bergmann said. "We need someone to help take up the extra because it really is phenomenal."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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