My eldest had managed to avoid taking gym class through three years of high school. Now as a senior, running into a graduation requirement, she’s taking it twice this year.

The other day, I asked her how it was going.

“OK,” she said. “We had a substitute, so we just played dodge ball.”

Dodge ball? Really?

The game we played back in the Nixon era? Where the strongest kids heaved a red rubber ball at the weakest, picking them off one by one, forcing them to stand on the sidelines in humiliation?

“Basically,” she said.

Through every stage of my kids’ education, teachers and administrators have tried to impress on me how different schools are from when I was a student, and every time I’ve peeked in I’m always impressed by how little has really changed.

Blackboards turned green and then white in the intervening years, and I don’t think little kids are told to line up in “size order” as we were.

But with the exception of middle school, which looks radically different and much improved from the kind of program I saw in junior high school, not much has changed. They even still play dodge ball.

Nationally, education reform is moving from the public policy arenas to the Cineplex with release of the new documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which promises to do for school problems what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for climate change (both films were directed by the same man, Davis Guggenheim.)

What the filmmakers illustrate will sound familiar to anyone who has been following the debate here in Maine.

The United States ranks fifth in the world in per-capita spending on K-12 education, but 21st out of 30 developed countries in scientific literacy and 25th in math.

In the past three decades, per-pupil spending has increased by 123 percent. Student-teacher ratios have dropped from 22 to 1 in 1970 to 16 to 1 in 2007. But according to the organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (in an article published recently in Time Magazine), there was no improvement in academic performance for 17-year-olds on a national reading test between 1971 and 2004.

In Maine, my teenage children have lived through wave after wave of school reform.

They started in the early days of Learning Results, and have suffered through iteration after iteration of testing brought on by No Child Left Behind.

But they still go to school on a calendar designed for an agricultural society that barely even exists anymore. And even though I know that state and local school spending has increased almost without pause every year of their educations, their experience has been one of ever-more-scarce resources.

The textbooks get older every year, programs disappear and teachers seem to be carrying heavier loads than ever.

We know so much more about childhood development now than we did when the school system was designed, but we are so reluctant to change things that we grew up with.

All the candidates for governor have proposed good ideas to make things better.

Democrat Libby Mitchell’s plan for statewide early childhood education, first proposed by her primary opponent Steve Rowe, reflects the latest research on brain development, suggesting that getting kids in programs before kindergarten could head off a slew of problems later in life.

Eliot Cutler proposes changes to the structure of the education system, creating charter school programs to address the kids who are being left behind or dropping out of the existing schools; magnet schools built in conjunction with universities where students can go above and beyond the current offerings; and stricter teacher accountability measures, including merit pay.

Republican Paul LePage is proposing the intriguing idea of a fifth high school year, from which the student comes out with an associates degree or two years of college credit, tuition free, along with a high school diploma.

All of these ideas will face opposition, if only because of their cost. Education is already the most expensive item in the state budget, and we should not expect that the era of budget austerity is going to disappear in the near term.

The teacher unions will fight many of the ideas, but it won’t just be them. Parents, local school committees and district administrators that have an entrenched interest in keeping things the way they are can be expected to object, along with their representatives in the state Legislature.

But regardless of who wins the race for governor, we all have an interest in helping the reformers gain some ground.

The world has changed, and we can keep our schools changing with it. Or we can just sit back while another generation learns to play dodge ball.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or: [email protected]