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Our State Board of Education now has a rare opportunity to find a person with a vision of what can happen if we change from a subject-based system to a student-centered system of public education.

Many years ago Ralph Waldo Emerson said this: "The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and only he holds the key to his own secret." Going against Emerson, a group of scholars specified what all students must know and be able to do in order to graduate from high school. They identified the "subjects" believed to contain the knowledge that is good for everyone to have. This was the beginning of our subject-based system of standardizing students.

The superintendent we need is one who can respect, or "regard highly" (Webster) every pupil in the school system. This means that we do not establish a predetermined curriculum for every child before they even walk through the front door of the school. A story is told of teachers who spent a summer workshop planning a marvelous curriculum only to learn that, when school started in the fall, the wrong kids showed up.

An unexpected discovery was made 30 years ago by a group of teachers when they decided to interview each child's parents at the beginning of the school year to learn more about each child and develop a partnership with parents.

When parents asked teachers to "recognize and respect my child as a unique individual with special talents and needs," the teachers actually found a way to begin building a student-centered system that enlarged positive student differences — a system that builds on each student's strengths or assets rather than trying to correct deficiencies!

After several years of partnership visits, it became clear that parents wanted teachers to help them develop human qualities as well as reading, writing and math. How was this to be done? Here is the amazing discovery: The teachers found that basic skills like reading, writing and math could be taught, not as ends in themselves, but as a "means" of helping students grow in human qualities like individual talents, curiosity, communication, creativity, respect, kindness, character, leadership and cooperation.

This "educating for greatness" model calls for middle and high schools to take a few steps that will lead toward a student-centered system and eventual, full application of the process:

• Increase the number and variety of course offerings.

• Make all classes elective.

• Offer home-room advisory classes with mentors who are charged with the responsibility to get well acquainted with each student and help him or her explore possible paths. This room also serves the valuable function of students sharing their projects and getting ideas and help from one another.

• Ensure that no class has students who do not want to be there. For graduation require each student to show, with courses taken, portfolios, and accomplishments, how s/he will be a contributor to society.

• Stop trying to measure student growth in uniformity (with grade-point averages) and start learning how to assess student growth in positive differences. We can ask, "What evidence do we have that this student is developing his or her unique talents and leaning how to use them to benefit others? How is s/he showing curiosity and the ability to ask powerful questions? How is s/he creative?

The advantages of a student-centered, quality-based system of public education are many: higher student achievement, no truancy, no bullying or dropouts and a high level of energy, enthusiasm and joy.

It will be well worth the time of our State Board of Education to find the right person to lead us to a student-centered system.

Lynn Stoddard retired after 36 years as a teacher and principal to write and speak about improving public education.