Concluding our series on what writers of YA fiction need to know about schools . . .
It’s hard to predict where school will be in twenty years, or even five. Almost everyone is looking for some magic formula that will solve all the difficulties our schools deal with and thereby create a generation of highly-educated, well-taught youth. This is, of course, utter foolishness. There is no teaching method that will reach all students. There is no curriculum that meets the needs of every single person. There is no classroom management system that works for all teachers. People are individuals, with their own needs, their own lives, their own desires, and their own methods.
Still, the belief that it’s possible to create a perfect system endures, and since public education is overseen by elected politicians, education has become more and more political. Politicians don’t dare touch Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security. They’re loathe to tell the military how to do their job. But education–now there they can make their mark. Everyone went to school, so everyone must be an expert on education. Change the budget (usually by cutting it), make new mandates, alter curriculum. It’s all possible.
Make your mark. Be the “education politician.” Best thing is, there are no consequences. By the time the changes you’ve forced on schools have an effect, you’ve moved out of the state legislator’s office and into the governor’s wing, or the federal government, or a cabinet position.
It’s easy for politicians to change education policy. Students never say anything–they rarely understand what’s going on or what to do about it. The vast majority of parents don’t know what’s going on in the schools. They just send their children, and when the kids come home, they ask, “How was school?” and the kids say, “Fine.” The kids never say, “We have 35 students in class and it’s hard to learn” or “We don’t have a library anymore” or “This year they don’t have enough books, so we won’t be reading Of Mice and Men.”
Just about the only people who complain are the teachers. And that’s easy to handle. The politicians simply call teachers lazy, or incompetent, or foolish, or weak, or just in it for a pension. What do teachers know about education? Make the changes, make your mark, move on to something bigger.
This wasn’t intended to be a rant, though it’s probably coming across that way. As writers, however, we need to be aware of the mercurial nature of modern schools. These days, education policy–and the schools themselves–change with lightning speed, and writers can’t depend on memories of their own school days to guide them.
A few examples of what seems to be on the horizon for our schools:
–More and more small charter schools are opening up. These schools are smaller and run for profit by private corporations, but they receive school aid money from their state. Some see charters as a panacea for districts with struggling schools. Others see them as a drain, since they receive money that would have gone to the public schools. However, almost all charter schools end in eighth grade. For writers, this can mean kids in the same neighborhood may be attending different schools with wildly different educational philosophies but end up in the same high school.
–Internet schools are popping up all over. Students watch video lectures, complete assignments, and take tests on-line. Not one teacher I know finds this an effective method of learning, and the students who take the courses talk about rampant cheating–paying friends to take the tests, looking up answers on-line, and so on. The video lectures I’ve seen for the on-line schooling in my state are universally awful, but the programs are cheap, and my state recently passed a bundle of laws to encourage (and fund) more on-line schools. Even now it’s theoretically possible to get through a big chunk of high school without setting foot in a classroom. This will only become more common in the next few years. (I’m personally hoping for anti-Internet backlash that nixes the whole thing, but I’m not holding my breath.)
–Electronic books are poised to swoop in. It’s only a matter of time. There are numerous advantages and disadvantages, but I’m betting that within five years they’ll be common and within ten they’ll be standard. By then, writers who have their characters talk about print textbooks will be laughed out of the school library!
So if you’re writing YA, don’t hesitate to muscle into that school building. Talk to teachers and administrators and cafeteria workers and even the students. Stay up to date. Your readers are!
–Steven Harper Piziks
The Doomsday Vault (a Clockwork Empire novel) available at bookstores everywhere.
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