published Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

David Cook: German guy's got some answers

It has taken an auto manufacturer based in a country 4,700 miles away to speak the truth about schools here.

"What we're trying to do with education is secure the future," Hans-Herbert Jagla, executive vice president of human resources for Volkswagen, said last week at a Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board meeting.

Few, if any, companies have had the effect on our region like VW. Its corporate giving. Its LEED-by-example environmentalism.

But VW's greatest contribution may be its influence on our schools.

"We don't want in the future to have skill gaps," said Jagla.

Gaps? We've got more gaps than North American malls. The recent state report card showed huge disparities between area students of color, economic means and able-bodiedness. This then translates into trouble for VW when employees show up willing, but not able, to do the work.

So Jagla has begun a vocal campaign to rearrange the way things are done here so that high school graduates are more prepared not just for VW jobs, but for much 21st-century employment.

And he's right. We've got to radically, drastically change the way we approach education. Because it's not working.

Let's pretend that we wake up tomorrow and the entire school system has vanished. Gone with the wind, everything: buildings, curriculum, procedures, testing, start and stop times, everything.

"Then suppose that you decided to turn this 'catastrophe' into an opportunity to increase the relevance of the schools," write education critics Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in their book "Teaching as a Subversive Activity."

"What would you do?"

Imagine this scenario forces us to re-examine the old ways we've been doing things. Like this one:

Get rid of summer.

In an age where most kids think cornrows are a hairstyle, summer -- the product of a bygone agricultural age -- is about as relevant as a hitching post.

The research is mixed, but many studies claim that year-round schools (45 days on, 15 days off) bolster educational gains, especially among poor kids in poor neighborhoods. And since that's a pretty big problem here, why not begin -- at the top levels -- to discuss year-round schooling?

Second, the schools we attend are dictated by our ZIP codes and addresses.

Why not make them thematic?

Sure, each school would have certain requirements similar to any other school, but a high school over in Hixson could offer kids a specialized education in technology while the one in East Ridge could attract would-be nurses and doctors.

Over in Red Bank, they teach classes designed for careers in communications and media. In East Brainerd, new agriculture and green infrastructure. At Signal Mountain, they focus on education. In Ooltewah, business management.

At Howard, someone finally takes Principal Paul Smith's plan seriously. For months, he's been trying to get some support to partner with VW to offer apprenticeship programs at the school's on-campus garage.

Additional local businesses could partner with each school, providing training, support and advice.

"We need to invest more together," Jagla said.

Our schools are still based on a factory model, where ringing bells dictate start and stop times, and kids go to classes the same way cars (sorry, Hans) are assembled on a factory line.

And we need liberation from the teaching-to-the-test syndrome. Slavish devotion to antiquated and standardized testing sucks the meaning and joy (yes, two words that can be used in education) of learning and replaces it with an all-or-nothing, outdated test.

And one more thing.

"I'm convinced we can lower the unemployment rate if we do this," Jagla said.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.

The problem with the school specialization idea is transportation more than anything else.

November 14, 2012 at 1:23 a.m.
nucanuck said...

Look no further than the County government to understand why Hamilton Countians are poorly prepared to compete academically. Our elected officials are a mirror into the community and they don't even know how little they know.

Sports facilities are more important than classrooms. Coaches are more important than teachers. Teaching is not a high respect profession. Education majors are unlikely to be well founded in their teaching subjects.

Nothing highlights a slipping America moreso than the failure to educate well.

November 14, 2012 at 1:39 a.m.
shen said...

Schools have become to overly obsessed with punishment and discipline. Over time, this strips a child of the ability to think, reason, create, rationalize and retain information. By the time they reach high school their ability to process and retain information has become so warped and distorted that they are unable to think, reason and retain information or function independently whithout help.

November 14, 2012 at 11:24 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Cook, would you happy if scores dropped among Asian-American and white students as long as they were more in line with those of the worst performers?

Nuck, sports are not more important than academics but they can be used to supplement academics. Cook should know this with his family's background and I would hope, would back me up. High school athletes are more likely to finish high school and have higher grades than students who don't participate. Why do you think some private schools require extra curricular activities? It makes their students well rounded and they can't spend all their free time on Facebook or cruising the highways.

November 14, 2012 at 12:33 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Judging from the title of this article I was eagerly looking forward to seeing some enlightened ideas on education from someone with an outsider's point of view. But what a joke. About the only thing I could call enlightened was doing away with the out-dated concept of summer vacation. And that is an idea that has long been discussed for years but not yet taken seriously. Why, I don't know. Oh yeah, we need the kids home so they can help the families tend to all those summertime farm chores!

But aside from that, every other suggestion revolves around turning our schools into nothing more than vocational training mills. We would be asking - practically requiring - that kids decide, at a much younger age than they already decide, exactly what vocation they wish to pursue, and focusing their entire education on job choice. That's preposterous at such a young age, when there is still so much to learn in all the other areas that will truly make someone educated, not just qualified to be a good robot in some auto assembly plant.

As for the idea of making schools thematic and doing away with neighborhood schools...I'm sorry but that's just downright silly. We already have vocational training schools. How much more specialized do we want to get and at how much younger an age do we want little Johnny or Janie to decide exacatly what they want to do for the rest of their lives?

I'm keenly aware that the jobs of the 21st century are going to require more specialization and more technical epxertise but specified skills and knowledge must not come at the expense of a well-rounded education. Mr. Hans-Herbert Jagla doesn't have anything new or profound to bring to the table. He just seems to be concerned with cranking out kids to hold down the highly technical jobs of the 21st century, particularly those that pertain to making Volkswagens.

November 14, 2012 at 12:48 p.m.
timbo said...

If you want to improve education...don't ask a teacher. You will get more of this.

It is pretty simple. The decline of test scores has coincided with the increase in education spending and the increase of out of wedlock births and one parent families.

Most of the problems are cultural but some could be genetic. Maybe the kids are just getting dumber. Back in prehistoric times, the dumb didn't make the evolutionary cut. They weren't around long enough to affect the gene pool. They would starve, get eaten by some predator and generally die because they couldn't cut it mentally.

Today the stupid mate and produce more stupid people. We are also involved in cultural evolution where a welfare state produces children with no incentive to get better. Their parents were on "free stuff" and they in turn expect more free stuff.

By the way, Germany has dumb people too. They started WWII and did put VW in Chattanooga.

Lastly, we have thrown trillions of dollars at this problem with almost no results. The definition of stupidity is repeating the same mistake over and over again.

One more thing, "The jobs of the 21st century are going to be harder,"....bull hockey. Automation and computerization will eliminate the need for some jobs and make less people more productive. This will cause more unemployment and social unrest.

Watch the "Idiocracy." Liberalism evolves to more stupidity.

November 14, 2012 at 3:53 p.m.

Actually, in real dollars and direct spending on education, it's dropped.

You know what drives the costs of schools? Well, there's disability services, there's administrative overhead, and there's those wonderful standardized tests.

But thanks for demonstrating where stupidity and prejudice truly lies.

November 14, 2012 at 5:32 p.m.
nucanuck said...


You are right, sports and all extra-curricular activities can play an important part in educating a child. My point was/is that too mamy of the education dollars are spent on athletics and athletic facilities. We kid ourselves when we say how much we spend on education while including non-core education items. The countries that are eating our lunch academically aren't building sport stadiums with school dollars. They are focusing first on core learning. We are not! They are getting results. We are not.

There are no simple answers to improve American education, but I believe that we have to start by focusing on the core issue.

November 15, 2012 at 12:24 a.m.
Lr103 said...

If you want students engaged and eager to be in the classroom, you have to have engaging educators who want to be there also. They also have to be knowledgeable in their subject matter. It's been all too often that teachers were emotionally absent because they were placed in a school or classroom they detested. The students always suffered.

November 15, 2012 at 5:27 p.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

Hans-Herbert Jagla said:""We don't want in the future to have skill gaps." A rather broad statement. What skill gaps? Skills in speaking in an intelligible manner? Personal skills such as showing up for work, being able to follow simple commands, politeness, dressing for work, limiting the number of facial tattoos, brushing your teeth, simple hygiene, being able to count change, simple math?

Business skills? Engineering skills? Skills one should learn at university?

What "skills" do you mean, sir? The skill to speak plainly, leaving no doubt as to what you are saying?

Then Mr. Jagla goes on to say,"We need to invest more together" which is typical business speak for what? Spend more money to bring graduating students to a level where they can read, write, do simple math, and communicate intelligently and effectively? Or just taxpayers spend more money to turn out drones for VW?

Mr. Jangla should give examples of the skills gap and where he will invest VW's money.

That would be effective and intelligent communication, Mr. Jangla. Maybe you too have a skills gap. Haven't the taxpayers invested enough money in VW? Aren't your profits soaring?

Practice what you preach before asking for more money from overtaxed citizens to increase your profits.

November 15, 2012 at 6:16 p.m.
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