Headwaters News May 6, 2002
High Schools are the Key to Montana’s
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
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
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
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.