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Headwaters News May 6, 2002
Montana Education

High Schools are the Key to Montana’s Future

by Michael Umphrey

Montana’s future is being decided right now in its 176 public high schools. They are foundational institutions. If they fail, none of our economic or cultural developments will succeed.

Unfortunately, getting the resources our high schools need in today’s political climate might take a political miracle. Only 29 percent of new teachers who graduated in Montana last year had any interest in looking for jobs in this state. While starting salaries in Oregon and Colorado are nearly $30,000, some Montana districts offer less than $20,000. It would be hard to imagine a more sure way for a self-governing society to ruin itself than to teach bright young people to organize their lives around making money and then to pay teachers a pauper’s wages. But that’s what we’re doing.

After a decade of neglect, it would now take an increase of about $80 million to raise average teacher salaries from their present $32,000 to a more competitive $50,000. But education leaders only asked the last legislature for $67 million, and legislators agreed to less than half that. This wasn’t because we couldn’t afford more, but because political opponents disagreed about the mission of the schools.

The good news is that an integrating vision has been developing for some time – one that both Democrats and Republicans support. For several years now a grass roots movement has been spreading through America, going by many names: character education, civic education, service learning, community-centered teaching, and place-based instruction. At the heart of these various approaches is a simple and unifying insight: we cannot separate education from community.

The various strands of this insight lead to an equally simple conclusion: we can revitalize our high schools by making the study of community their central organizing principle. This would mean offering classes that study our civic institutions as they have developed in time and as they are practiced in the real world of local communities. It would mean studying history and ecology by examining local illustrations. It would mean providing every student opportunities to study ways the local community interacts with its ecological, geographical, business, and historical contexts.

Such studies should go beyond textbook abstractions into detailed examinations of such topics as the role of forests in local economies and in watersheds or the engineering constraints for local water and sewer systems. Working with state and local agencies, students might conduct feasibility studies for businesses or sociological comparisons of varying cultural practices and their impacts on health.

Such approaches have been advocated by leading educational researchers for some time. High school students are at the developmental stage when they are beginning to form communities, which is why they tend to be so cliquish. Their most important educational need at this age is to be guided through intelligent explorations of community in all its aspects.

This also improves academic learning. Classroom instruction unrelated to real situations often does not lead to understanding or the ability to transfer knowledge from the classroom to the world. But when young people use academic skills to analyze real issues in the world they know, they move from dull abstractions to deep learning.

And the benefits go beyond individual learning. Social capital is also created. Through the 1950s a teacher in Pennsylvania connected his high school seniors with local officials to research aspects of the local community. Thirty years later researchers tracked down these students to see whether the experience had measurable long-term effects. The results were stunning. Students who had been involved in local studies in high school were four times more likely than other students to have joined voluntary associations.

By tackling the real issues their communities faced alongside committed adults, those students felt a part of the community. They learned to find meaning in shared work. They developed commitment to civic engagement that lasted throughout their lives. Imagine the impact on Montana’s future if every student in every high school had similar opportunities.

It needn’t increase costs to see that every student has at least one class each term that deals directly and intensively with local knowledge or local issues. It only requires adding units to existing classes. Any teacher can take the first steps.

And this is just a beginning. As schools become more community-centered, communities become more education-centered. All our agencies, public and private, have parts to play. Television stations, artists, newspapers, museums, parks, clubs, businesses, chambers of commerce, grandparents, and cowboys should re-examine their roles, seeing what resources they can contribute to the work of educating our citizenry, beginning with our youth. Most agencies have already figured out they can’t fulfill their missions without educating the public.

What we need now is leadership in building suitable frameworks for collaboration. Universities could begin by being sure the professional training of teachers and administrators fosters an understanding that their professional responsibilities include contributing to the well-being of communities.

University researchers could guide rigorous research projects into local communities and ecosystems, using high school classes in a variety of ways. This would involve training teachers, but also guiding local projects and sending graduate students into the field to help students gather, organize, preserve and interpret their research data.

Many such projects have been successful. For example, scientists with the Long-Term Ecological Research Network have used students to assist with cutting edge scientific problems. In one project, classes at a high school in Seattle and at one in Tuscaloosa took measurements of temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, phosphate, total dissolved solids, total bacteria counts and net primary production while a group of scientists measured the same variables at a pristine site in Antarctica. This allowed researchers both to follow what was happening at each site and to make cross-site comparisons.

The Library of Congress is currently using high school students to collect oral histories of veterans throughout the nation. This builds on their nationwide Local Legacies project of two years ago, which was modeled on the Montana Heritage Project, in which high schools and other community organizations conducted historical research and documented contemporary aspects of community life for the Library’s archival collections. The Library is leading an exploration of the ways ordinary people, with the support of professionals, can study their own lives and tell their own stories for the historical record.

Local studies provide a real and important use for the information technologies that communities need to build and that students need to use in the global economy. Our educational leaders should be talking in earnest about what researches can be undertaken in collaboration with high schools, and our communities should be talking in earnest about what informational infrastructure they need to build, starting with the schools.

When every high school in Montana is involved in linked, statewide research projects through the universities, the Montana Historical Society, and our land management agencies, our students’ educations will get a powerful boost at the same time we all get useful information in an accessible form.

An education today that does not involve students in creating new knowledge will not serve them well. Today all aspects of life, from health care to farming, are based on original research. Most information in the information age is local, because we need detailed local knowledge for our own purposes. Foresters prepare prescriptions for specific sites, based on careful study and historical data. Entrepreneurs conduct original research that closely examine the possibilities and constraints of particular locations.

Montana needs to study itself extensively if it is to thrive. No one else will do it for us.

Textbook publishers selling to nationwide markets don’t often mention Montana, but better educational materials are close at hand, ranging from large-scale aerial photographs taken by the Soil Conservation Service to research reports created at all levels of government on thousands of local topics.

Though we usually associate education with the global economy, we need to remember that the global economy is never going to have a place for all of us. The global economy needs to be augmented by robust local economies. It is in the interactions of local economies that we develop our social connections, find dignified and important roles for those unsuited for the global economy, decrease our vulnerability to the restructurings that are routine in global markets, and make it more likely that we will be able to find fresh vegetables and plumbers.

Most of Montana’s economy will always be local. More than anything, Montana needs a generation of educated young people who understand the places they live and want to stay, and who have an entrepreneurial spirit, confidence, and commitment to finding new ways to live well. To develop a thriving local economy, we need to develop a thriving local culture of people who are self-aware, committed to mutual support, and prepared to inquire and learn.

By organizing our high schools around local studies, we can create what we need.


Michael Umphrey is a former high school principal. He currently directs the Montana Heritage Project.



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