By KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — School vouchers, more teachers and national testing will continue to be hot topics on the campaign trail as candidates look for positions on education reform that are popular with their constituency. Dr. John Borkowski, chair of the psychology department at Notre Dame University, would like the debates to have more substance and presented “What Makes Schools Successful,” a lecture filled with real solutions and provocative insights for residents in the Midlands.
Sponsored by the Notre Dame Club, Borkowski’s lecture Oct. 19 at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, was part of the Hesburgh Lecture Series. Named after the admired president emeritus of Notre Dame, Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, the annual series “is a public service of the University of Notre Dame and its alumni to help foster discussion and education on topics pertinent to our society today,” said Steven Rudnicki, president of the club and parishioner at St. John Neumann. Area teachers, parents and administrators took advantage of this opportunity to hear Borkowski, prolific author and recipient of the Lifetime Research Award from the Academy on Mental Retardation.
Borkowski sees the solutions commonly debated in education as too simplistic and not far reaching enough. For example, vouchers would be positive for some, but there is concern to whether there will be enough funds to pay tuition for all students applying and whether the private schools are equipped to handle a large influx of new students. National testing, another popular solution, also has drawbacks. While it helps accountability, teachers may be tempted to “teach the test” to avoid negative performance ratings.
After 20 years of analyzing schools across the country, Borkowski has compiled a list of common practices which have produced the proper results. “Focus on processes as well as content” seemed to be the most important emphasis at these schools. Instead of being concerned only with the right answer, Borkowski witnessed an interest in the “process,” how the student derived the answer. “We must teach children how to think, teach them how to do math, how to read. Make learning fun and exciting,” said Borkowski with passion. This objective cannot be achieved without effective discipline. “There must be an insistence on good behavior. Students have to know the rules and live up to them,” he said adding, “When there is a high level of respect, everyone succeeds.” As a father of seven grown children, he gave believability to that statement.
He sees the importance of having a shared goal and a shared method of accomplishing it. For example, he saw poster campaigns advertising the school’s mission statement. One poster read: “Work hard. Get smarter. Believe in yourself,” while another school had the slogan, “Your I WILL is more important than your IQ.” Both of these statements show students that if they are willing to work, they can accomplish goals. Such ideas benefit youth who are not being challenged or who feel they cannot learn.
He also mentioned that “parent unions” could be helpful. These unions should be committed to improving parenting skills by sponsoring programs on child development and instructing parents on how to teach at home. “Parents should help one another and exchange information not just raise money for new computers,” said Borkowski.
Schools are faced with many new problems such as the breakdown of the family, complacency of the public, lack of incentive for teaching excellency and too much administrative bureaucracy, according to Borkowski. He sees hope in the future if families and teachers work together in their own schools, teaching children how to learn not just how to perform.