As superintendents and school districts face the challenges of mandated testing and the pressure to improve test scores, there's a danger we may develop a very short-sighted approach to education--an approach that could deprive students of experiences they need to succeed as adults in our global society.
Certainly no one argues with a school district's responsibility to focus on a high quality academic program. But a total education involves more than reading and math. We cannot shortchange our students. What comes to my mind is the value of student travel. As a teacher, building administrator and now superintendent, I have seen the value of travel. It can:
Motivate students to achieve in their classrooms
Expand understanding of their country and the world
Encourage them to be active citizens in our democracy
Enhance their development in the performing arts.
Student travel supports youngsters' academic progress, reinforcing and bringing to life what they are exposed to in the classroom. Some people learn best when they experience an activity or see an event. A scientific concept may be difficult to comprehend thoroughly and apply until a student sees it firsthand in a science museum. The value of voting may have little meaning until a young person sees Congress in action in the nation's capital. One of the traditional educational trips for adolescents is to visit Washington, D.C. There they can meet with governmental leaders, see how money is made, learn about the influence of advocates on the legislative process, and understand the many steps required for a thought to become legislation. One of the greatest challenges our society faces is the lack of participation by the majority of our citizens in the governmental process. Anything school districts can do to instill a commitment to participate is extremely valuable.
As our society becomes more global, students need more diverse skills and understanding to participate fully in society. Student travel expands a person's understandings of other cultures and other areas. Many of us reside in communities that do not offer the diversity that makes the United States special. When our students return from trips to Los Angeles, El Paso or New York they bring back a new appreciation of the breadth of our country. International travel is becoming even more important to give students an understanding of the nations where they may well do business as adults. Through travel we can learn the habits and cultural differences of another country and get an accurate perspective of what those in other nations think about the United States.
Travel is also important to students in the performing arts. We can ask band and orchestra students to practice at school, but when they have the chance to meet with clinicians and perform during festivals, they become much more motivated to achieve.
Schools have a special responsibility to give all students travel opportunities. While some families travel, typically they cannot provide their youngsters the insights available through a school trip. Travel with school groups are organized by providers who know the location, have experience with individuals at the site, and are knowledgeable about the safest and most educational ways to conduct the trip. Also, some families aren't in a position to travel, and school travel will be the only opportunity these youngsters will have to learn away from home.
Travel has an important role in education today. As superintendents we should support student travel, but we also must demand that it be offered in the most appropriate ways. Today's world is a little more precarious than it was five years ago. What we can't do is give into fear and stay in our homes and communities. What we should do is plan excursions with established travel consultants who can offer us structured trips to venues that are as safe as possible. The Student & Youth Travel Association of North America can recommend such experienced consultants through its Web site, www.syta.org.
No Child Left Behind is the law of the land today, but it deals only with the basic aspects of learning. While it can guide us in providing those basics to students, it should not limit us from giving students all that they need to succeed in a global society. Student travel is key to that.
Kenneth Dragseth is superintendent of Edina (Minn.) Public Schools and 2003 National Superintendent of the Year.