On August 30, 2023

National emphasis on ‘know’ over ‘know-how’ is detrimental

 

By Ken Cadow

Editor’s note: Ken Cadow of Norwich is co-principal of Oxbow High School in Bradford, a board member of Green Mountain Economic Development Corp., and author of a book, “Gather,” that’s coming out in October.

When I tell people from away that I work in a school with around 400 kids, grades 7-12, it’s inevitable: Depending on where they’re from, it sounds so idyllic that they almost want to dismiss it as a possible job. 

“That’s smaller than my graduating class,” many have said. “I’d bet my school had more staff than yours has students,” one person told me. 

Maybe they’re correct, but why does it seem belittling? Why do urbanites get to choose the lenses through which we rural educators assess the significance of our work?

I can’t help but feel puzzled, even offended. I’ve finally started tossing numbers back. How many square miles is your school’s sending area? My district draws students from an area roughly 10 times the size of that quaint little island, Manhattan.

Maybe my repartee has become petulant. How many acres is your campus? You don’t know? You don’t know how big an acre is, I see. Well, the world can also be measured in acres. 

How many of the students from your school know how to fix a small engine? Work a garden, tend a field, milk a cow, feed the world? Paddle a kayak, track a deer, fell a tree, tap a maple and boil sap down to syrup, drive a tractor, drive in the snow, drive in the mud, drive at all? 

Wait; what did you say your test scores were? Because you folks sound like you need help.

Far too many of the metrics by which the education system defines and tests for success, and far too many of the methods it employs for delivery, are rooted in a bias that takes more of its cue from the leisure class than from the working class.

In other words, students can graduate top of their class simply by knowing stuff, without knowing how to apply what they’ve learned. The national educational system emphasizes “know” over “know-how” to an extreme that is detrimental to rural America.

By some metrics, Vermont’s rural/urban population ratio is the highest in the union. By others, we’re a hair behind Maine. (Wait — what about Alaska? I’m talking about some metrics. But remember, too, a 50,000-square-mile patch of land with no one living in it does not contribute to a population count at all.)

The U.S. Census finds that our nation’s rural population comprises only around 20% of the total. But we’re a big country. Our rural population rivals that of the entire population of Italy. It is more than 10 times the size of Finland, whose education system we have studied to death. Our rural population alone would be in the world’s 25 most populous countries.

What I’m saying is, we’re big enough to deserve our own systemically considered benchmarks when determining what success means as we struggle to comply with America’s Every Student Succeeds Act.

There is an undeniable correlation between the standardization of education in the United States and rural population drain. Yes, it’s dangerous to think correlation means causation, but it’s more dangerous to dismiss it as random coincidence.

For schools to be part of a solution to rural America’s woes, we have to consider how schools contribute to the problem and do something big about it. We need to be emboldened and supported. This isn’t going to happen if our rural educators are waiting for the latest hand-slap due to the publication of the last round of test scores or the latest audit for compliance in a leisure-based system.

To raise resourceful kids, we need to better embrace “know-how.” In rural, agricultural America, where basic technological, mechanical, nutritional, social and medical services are more likely to be a two-hour walk away than down the steps and around the corner, educators need permission, encouragement and training to make a dramatic shift in how we teach and what we’re expected to expect from our work, especially if we want our students to be recognized as the assets they are, in the place that they are. 

Most Vermont schools wholeheartedly embrace place-, work-, community-, or project-based learning, and there are loads of excellent resources from our Agency of Education to support us. Alas, most of these programs fall under the “elective” category, meaning that they are outside of the foundational core. Kids who struggle may not even be able to enroll in peripheral classes where they see the most relevance and are most likely to succeed.

I am not saying that we need to start career and technical education in preschool, though I would suggest that the distinction we insist on making between career and technical education and laudable academics is arguably the biggest factor in the rift throughout the USA, but that’s a different topic and a rabbit hole in a quagmire — try to go down that and you’ll get seeped at from every side.

I am saying that those aspects we recognize and test for as foundational skills need a different bent in rural America. Our foundations are built in acres upon acres of dirt, fields and forests, and we need to boost those skills and value them accordingly.

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