Saturday, March 27, 2010

My Dream: Professor Drout's Academy of Wisdom and Learning

I have an idea about how simultaneously to improve high school education for some kids and help out with the job crisis in academia. Here it is.

Just down the street from my house is an empty school building that was for a long time St. Mary's School in Dedham and then housed the British School of Boston and then the Rashi School (or vice versa) before these moved to new buildings. If a benevolent philanthropist or someone with the political and legal skills to create a charter school were to help me, here's what I would do:

I would open a school staffed entirely with new Ph.D.'s, probably mostly from local New England universities, who wanted to get teaching experience. It would pay $42,000 per year with full benefits on two-year contracts. The idea would be that faculty would teach at the Academy as a way-station on their academic careers, kind of a teaching and research post-doc. They would receive intensive on-the-job training about how to teach (because there is no tougher audience than high-school kids), though even if they weren't great teachers at the start, they would have energy and excitement about their work and would become good teachers.

Everyone would be expected to do research as well. We would have weekly colloquia and presentations, part of the benefits would include Interlibrary Loan and access to academic databases, etc, and time would be set aside each week and within each day to do and present research. The headmaster (me, to start) would advise and support the staff in interdisciplinary research efforts, bring in speakers, etc.

The "catch" would be that the students would have to be included in this research in various ways--you'd have to design your projects so that students could help, and this working on cutting-edge research projects would be a way to focus student learning. If a student was helping, for example, on a 19th-century history project, then the teacher would be teaching the students the background they needed to understand the project and contribute to it.

There would be no entrance examination for the school, and we would take students who were struggling and students who already were academically excellent (so much so that their parents wanted them to be taught by 100% Ph.D.'s.) The only requirements would be an entrance interview with the headmaster for both student and parents. Ideally the benevolent philanthropist or clever political and legal person who helped me set this up would have made it so that there was no tuition, but there would be some contribution expected from every family--volunteering, raising money for field trips, etc. (rather than writing checks, which some families can't afford).

The faculty in the school would be happy and fulfilled because they would still be doing their research and in fact might be producing more as part of an interdisciplinary, close-knit scholarly community. Taking a two-year position at the Academy (note, I would be happy to name it after anybody who wants to endow it) would be a way to improve one's career prospects, research productivity and financial bottom line. Instead of rushing from one adjunct job to the next, teachers would be in one place, earning a fair wage under good working conditions and where they were respected.

Students would have the benefits of an all-Ph.D. faculty who would every single day model for them the value of intellectual effort. The faculty would make up for in energy what they might lack in experience, and students could count on being as entertained as they were challenged (because we know how new Ph.D.s are about their research projects). Students who had been bored or isolated in the traditional school environment would have an opportunity to devote themselves to intellectual pursuits and to go as far and as fast as they wanted. Students who had struggled would suddenly have a peer group that cared deeply about academics.

I know there are a million problems with this dream, most of all that I lack the political and legal skills to bring it off, and I don't have any money to start the school. But I also think that within this crazy idea there might be the core of a way to address two very significant problems: the failures of the educational system (particular for kids who want to be intellectual) and the job crisis in academia. I think that a lot of faculty who tried it, and didn't see taking a job like this as a year or two lost to research but instead an opportunity to learn some new skills while earning a living wage, would discover how much they loved teaching. I think the students would learn more in a few years at the Academy than nearly anywhere else, and I think I could create the kind of intellectual community that we would need.

So, if any benevolent philanthropists or charter school experts are reading, please get in touch.


saars said...

I like this post a lot! Interesting - sort of like "Teach for America" for Ph.Ds and grad students instead of itinerant undergrads.

i I wonder what it means for someone to "want" to be intellectual. Anything "research" or "academic" perks up the ears of a lot of parents who could push their children to achieve - it could be twisted into a nice resume booster, to start.

I think a lot of kids grow into passions through indirect exposure piquing their interest, so it's not necessarily in an enforced environment that they may succeed most. I think that some of the best courses I've taken at the university I had no or nebulous expectations for... and high school it's hard to be engaged in even the most interesting of subjects. and those courses can divert the trajectory of your study, or of your life.

I guess my point is that it seems nearly impossible, even in interview, to discern in a 14-year old what sort of academic potential they have or what kinds of interests they may develop through exposure. maybe we just don't understand human psychology enough yet to know what triggers the right mix of emotions and intellectualism to start a fire in someone's mind. Sometimes they just have to be thrown into the mix in order to blossom... in any case, I'm looking forward to your philanthropic endeavors!

highlyeccentric said...

I have no practical advice, but I would be jumping up and down to join the teaching staff in a few years! :D

goblinpaladin said...

My goodness. This is the sort of education I would have loved in school. It is the sort of thing almost every academic friend I have would be interested in.

I do so hope it can be created. As pipe dreams go, it's pretty grand.

Nichim said...

Frankly, though I love me my intellectual pursuits and research, the on-the-ground reality you mention has largely kept me from setting my cap for an academic career. But if this dream of yours were to come true, I'd love to teach in such an academy after I get my fancy wizard's robe. Or maybe my MA would be good enough for a secretary job, and you'd let me sit in on some seminars?

Anonymous said...

I think a school like that would scream of elitism. Just because someone has a Ph.D should in no way make them a teacher.

Instead of one school catering to Ph.D's, why not try and implement new Ph.D's into already existing schools to try and revitalize them? or is the idea to give the teachers the impression they are working in a collegiate atmosphere?

Ultimate Connections said...

I love the idea. It reminds me of the Ethical Culture School which produced genius lke Robert J. Oppenheimer. School should be an environment where the student's mind is allowed to explore, enquire and imagine the empirical reality of this universe rather than "memorize" the facts of life and repeat those in exams.
I have taught for some time at various levels, come from a family that established several schools in Jaipur and lived in various countries across the globe. And I strongly feel that a 13 -14 yr old knows very well what (s)he wants to do in life, if given a chance.

That's an age when we are ready to embrace life with open hands...and what better time to receive focused education.

Your idea is marvelous. I will forward this post to all who might be philanthropic enough to support a plan like this.

Meanwhile, I wish you good luck!

Liz Ditz said...

I posted a brief description at Kitchen Table Math and told the commenters to come over here. But they're an unruly bunch and didn't follow directions.

Some useful comments there, including:

What about math & science?

$42K not enough money


Is this an April Fool's Joke?

Jennifer said...

Where I am, in California, people who have PhDs and which to teach high school students make more than $42,000 in the public schools.

I feel that this "pipe dream" revives the old saw that in teaching, unlike every other career in which research has been conducted, enthusiasm counts for more than experience, and that enthusiasm is inversely related to experience. However, in the real world, we find that ability to teach tends to grow with experience, just like it does in every other field.

quixotic said...

this makes me want to be a student at the Academy.
hhmmm... indulging in the fantasy

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STAG said...

And a PhD is qualified to teach how? You get ten students, you get ten problems. Or more likely twelve problems. These problems include (in my limited experience as a teacher) a range of things from assorted learning disabilities like asberger's to ADHD, from dyslexia to OCD, chronic drug abuse,to pregnancy, from ESL difficulties to poor coping skills not to mention poor to non-existent study habits.

Teaching is a trade. Far more workable, less hazardous and successful a model would be to get PhD's to work as garage mechanics. At least that way they wouldn't be messing with kids's brains....

You state that "Students who had struggled would suddenly have a peer group that cared deeply about academics."

Are PhD's more caring then?

You state that "even if they weren't great teachers at the start, they would have energy and excitement about their work and would become good teachers."

Why? I mean, why would they be excited about teaching English lit to a kid in high school; its not what they went to uni for. Sounds like they would be only too happy to see the end of their "community service sentence".

How would raising the requirements to enter a teacher's college to demand a PhD instead of a BA help out with the job crisis in academia?

Something is fishy here....