Jenks Superintendent Predicts Major Changes

Contributing Editor

DR. KIRBY LEHMAN: Contem-plating a smaller world.

DAVID JONES for GTR Newspapers

Dr. Kirby Lehman says American schools have no choice. They have to change.

The 19-year Jenks Superintendent of Schools says competition from abroad, particularly China, will force the American educational scene to change radically. If not, he says, within one to three decades from now America will find itself behind and rushing madly to catch up.

Reading, writing and arithmetic will change to an emphasis on science, higher mathematics and fluency in a second and third language.

“We have to have a country that is bi-lingual or multi-lingual to survive in a world economy.”

What languages does he suggest?

“Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. They are the two most widely used languages in the world.”

Dr. Lehman’s interest in China and the Chinese method of education goes back a decade and a half. What he has seen in China has influenced him in what he feels American education needs.

“Chinese schools meet approximately 220 days a year. American schools meet about 170 days a year. In Oklahoma it has been proposed that another five days be added to the schedule, but that is a very small amount. Given the remaining difference it means that in the pre-kindergarten to high school senior schedule, a Chinese student gets the equivalent of roughly 3.6 more years education than an American student in the same time frame.

“To keep up, our education system must improve and expand the time for student opportunity. The answer is not in making the school day longer. At Jenks we place rigorous demands on our students. We need a longer school year.

“We are still basing the school year on an agrarian calendar year for a society that no longer lives on a farm. The extended summer breaks are deleterious to a student’s progress. In many school systems, the first six weeks of a school year in math are spent reviewing what was learned the previous year just to bring the student up to speed.”

What Dr. Lehman would like to see is a year that would be completely different from the August to May time frame currently used.

“I don’t see the school year changing much in the near future, but in the long term it will have no choice. We have the raw talent in our students, but we need more time with them.

“Research shows that for real success, in two to three decades youngsters are going to have to be well-grounded in math and science.

“I think we might be better served with a 42 or 44 week school year divided by two week vacations. If parents wanted to take a vacation longer than two weeks, such as a major trip abroad, it could be worked in on an individual basis. Such vacations can be highly educational, but not all trips are equal. A long stay at an archaeological dig, for example, is worth more than two weeks in Disneyland.”

The downside of such a program, says Dr. Lehman, is obvious: the cost.

The upside is that with a longer school year, not only will students get more training but educators will be paid a more competitive wage and that will add to the pool of top-notch teachers for a coming generation of scholars.

“If you pay enough, top people who would have gone into other pursuits will compete for educational positions.”

When Dr. Lehman goes to China, he knows he will not be looking at a level playing field. Unlike America, where educators try to get every student at least a high school diploma, in China the winnowing-out process is already well advanced and only a small percentage get to the high school level. The students there, he says, are not only capable but also highly motivated.

“The last time I was in China I was asked to give a lecture to the students. I know no Mandarin so I gave the lecture in English. There was no interpreter.

“The next morning when I arrived in school I discovered I had been lined-up for 17 more lectures, which I gave, all in English with no interpreter. The students understood me; they all spoke English. I don’t have the latest figures but I believe China has the largest English-speaking population in the world.”

That is one of the reasons he wants to see students take a foreign language, not just for two or three years in middle and high school but beginning in pre-kindergarten and going all 14 years to the high school diploma.

“We have to be a country in which people are either bilingual or trilingual if we want to survive in the world economy.”

Once upon a time, America had a school system that stopped at the sixth grade in many communities with long summer vacations so the students could work on the family farms.
The schools of those days have had to change.
And the change is accelerating.

Updated 03-24-2008

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