David Cook: German guy's got some answers

David Cook: German guy's got some answers

November 14th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

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 dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.