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Intel chairman’s right about one thing: We need to talk about education

Submitted by on Wednesday, 13 May 2009 No Comment
Give Intel Chairman Craig Barrett credit for two things: He's no Johnny Come Lately to the issue of education reform, and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is sometimes.

Make that three things: He's right when he says America needs to expand its pool of teachers, looking beyond those with teaching degrees to draw in people with expertise in the subjects they're teaching.

Oh, and there's a fourth, too. He's correct that American schools don't focus enough on the brighter students.

"I think, as a general rule, we focus on the lowest common denominator," he told The Associated Press this week. "What you really need is more emphasis on the advanced placement courses in science, math and English. Those are the way you really allow the bright kids to have greater access to learning opportunities."

Heritage Foundation leaders might not invite him back to speak when they realize Barrett is echoing what critics of No Child Left Behind have been saying for years: That the policy ignores gift students. Struggling students, too.

For that matter, NCLB ignores everybody except the mass of students close to the middle, those who could become another proficient bubble-test taker with a bit more help.

And isn't focusing on the middle by definition mediocrity?

Barrett has at least been willing to invest money in solutions, contributing hundreds of thousands to a number of charter schools. Taxpayers in Oregon would argue that public schools wouldn't need Barrett's largess if Intel would just pay its fair share of taxes.

That would ruin another part of his argument before the Heritage Foundation, though: That America is in shambles in part because of its tax structure, while countries that lower their rates draw investment. Apparently business should be able to pick and choose how to support education without any of that annoying government intervention.

Granted, Barrett has invested his money in some successful schools, such as the Basis Schools Inc. charter system in Arizona. That program's Tucson campus consistently is ranking among the top high schools nationally, though the ranks largely are based on the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes.

That's the Basis system's forte. All students are required to take at least six exams to graduate. Some have graduated with enough AP credits to start college as sophomores. At $86 per exam, though, it's not cheap.

Nor is it easy, and Basis' program reflects that. All students complete calculus, physics, biology, chemistry, U.S., European and world history, English literature, critical writing and analysis and a foreign language. Most students also take AP calculus and a good proportion take AP micro and macro economics.

Basis also adheres to Barrett's philosophy of hiring teachers. Few faculty members have education degrees and many came to the school with no teaching experience. Many, however, hold advanced degrees in their subjects, including several with doctorates.

The school's founder acknowledges that students should expect to put 10 hours a day into school and that she doesn't want parents to be involved. Some parents chafe at those expectations; others applaud them.

The founder also admits she needs a boatload of private money in addition to Barrett's: It takes $350,000 a year to cover one merit pay/teacher mentoring program. Clearly, that type of funding isn't available to the average public school, where teachers have to beg for donations for classroom supplies.

So what are the lessons to be learned from the Basis system, with neatly dovetails with Barrett's major points:

That it is possible for America's top students to learn more, and to learn it at earlier ages, than the average teen has a chance to be exposed to. That mathematicians, biologists and philosophers can learn to be teachers, with the proper mentoring. And that it all comes with a price tag attached.

"We have to raise the level of the national debate on this," Barrett said this week.

He's right about that, too.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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