If I were in charge of American education …

Education is at about as an all time low as it can get. I am not as doom and gloom as I sound: there are some schools that are weathering the storm, and even some private schools that have not compromised to keep numbers up … but in the public and private sector the number of good schools is dwindling: some due to economic factors, some due to sociological factors, others for political reasons. In most cases, some combination of the two.

So, if I had absolute control of the educational system:

1. Schools would be required to keep a 20:1 student:teacher ratio or lower, minus special education classes. One of the few factors that schools actually can control that affects student education is the number of kids that get shoehorned into a classroom. There have been an infinity-1 number of studies that show class size is one of the key factors in determining student achievement. I would legislate a 20:1 student ratio, with a cap of 24 students per class, with common sense exceptions. Many schools steer around this by having special ed classrooms of 2-3 kids while packing 40 into an English classroom. No dice!

2. If your degree is in education, you are not teaching beyond the elementary school level. In Illinois, this is not much of a problem, but I am shocked to hear the number of English, math, and social studies teachers that do not hold degrees in that field. This also reduces the number of people trying to enter the profession through fly-by-night “colleges”.

3. Mandatory pre-teacher training in modern techniques. All teachers, prior to entering the classroom, should be exposed to modern and diverse methods of teaching. This has gotten better, but I still think this has a long way to go.

4. Parents are held accountable for student attendance. Many people are not aware that under NCLB, the schools are responsible for low attendance. That is if a kid doesn’t come to school, or the parents decide to let the kids take a week vacation, that is the school’s fault, according to the federal government. In my model, schools become responsible for turning over parents/students who are not in attendance to the proper authorities. Students absent more than a certain number of days are also no longer to be counted against the school, in terms of detailing accountability on any assessments.

5. School boards are required to submit curricula for review, and can be overturned by state agencies which are not subject to voter recall. Call this my “Kansas Rule”. Attempts to circumvent the Constitution, attempts to put together watered down curricular options for the football/basketball/ etc teams are culled. Don’t even think of trying to get “equal time for Intelligent Design” or other pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo.

6. Standardized test scores would no longer be used to evaluate teachers/students. Schools that naturally get standardized test scores are under no pressure to improve them. Schools that aren’t getting good standardized test scores generally can’t. In Illinois, the ACT is the only measure of student success under NCLB, and there are no exceptions for language ability. This has not worked, and it will continue to not work.

7. Take the money used for standardized testing and create boards of review for schools. Boards of review can consist of college professors, retired teachers in good standing, retired administrators in good standing, and other professionals with background in education. Assessments of schools involve surprise inspections, routine and random examination of student work. Random interviews with teachers, administrators, parents, students. In other words: assess schools based on what is really happening. I have had people say that schools should be assessed like businesses are: look at the numbers and the bottom line. My response is: think of all the people who thought Enron was a golden child …. looking at the bottom line is not the end all-be all.

Besides, why should a business model be applied to a non-business? One might just as well start treating poorly performing businesses like schools. The business model is great for business (some of the time). It is not good for schools (which is not to say there is no overlap …. just not as much as you think!)

Imagine if, when you started a business, no matter where, no matter how small, you were immediately required to meet the same standards of profit and return as the smallest Fortune 500 companies, and then if you did, you then had to continually meet higher and higher goals until you failed, at which point the government would come in, throw out management, and take over the company. If it still functioned poorly, the workers would be fired, and replaced by workers fired from other failing companies. That would surely fix the companies!! (wouldn’t it??)

8. Administrators are required to spend not less than 5% of their time in classrooms; which must be verified independently. Too many administrators don’t know what is happening. They need to know.

9. One size fits all plans are permanently forbidden. This is what NCLB tried to be: one vaccination to fix all of the ills of the public school system. Not only didn’t it come close to working (the bad schools are still bad), but it actually forced some of the schools that were working to waste money on test preparation and in other areas that were not helping education.

10. Educational research would be subjected to the same rigor as scientific research. When I talk to people in the social “sciences” they talk about how their work is as legitimate as those in the natural sciences, except that they don’t have to submit to peer review. The invented term “scientism” has expanded beyond its original meaning “those who hold scientific philosophy to be the one true philosophy by which everything should be followed”, to now include anyone who advocates that non-sciences adopt the same rigor of research standards as the natural sciences have. While the government should not and cannot demand that researchers adopt any standard, the US Department of Education shouldn’t even touch a piece of research submitted by any researcher unless there is significant peer review, and examination of any substantial views that counter that. I am convinced that part of the reason that there is some truth to the idea that “all educational reforms eventually end in failure” is because there is not enough critical discussion on the limitations of suggestions that come from educational research.

11. There should be a critical re-evaluation of special education laws, particularly least-restrictive measures. Under the law, students are to be educated in their least restrictive environments. Compared to what happened in the past, that is a good thing (where anyone diagnosed with the least problem on limited data was relegated … I myself was relegated to the “slower” kindergarten class based on testing that occurred on one day because I didn’t test well. That changed quickly after I got into class and had caring teachers who saw I was capable of more. I still believe strongly in maintaining that kids are capable of far more than the 1950s mentality would have had us believe, but at the same time, I also see a lot of kids whose parents are not permitting their kids to be helped in the name of trying to give them “normal” life. Further, there are parents who far too easily game the system in order to give their kids a leg up … that is kids with borderline “conditions” which they grow out of with time and a little guidance are given a whole slew of benefits, including extended test time and extended time to complete assignments. Far too often I see these students going to advanced classes as seniors (this is good), but are buffered from the difficulty. I spend a lot of time wondering what happens when these kids get into the work world/college when that help is no longer there.

12. Schools would be restored to educating students, with significant decrease in their roles of doing ancillary things. Schools have been burdened with quite a bit over time … some of those things aren’t so bad, and are fairly or obviously appropriate ….. everything from exit exams on the US and state constitution and sex education and consumer education. Some things like having to spend money on hot lunches and checking students’ immigration status put a major crimp into school budgets. Further, while strongly support sports and activities as a part of the educational process, in some cases this part of the budget balloons out of control compared to the school budget that actually goes toward an academic education.

13. If you want to graduate, there are certain courses you just must pass. Plain and simple, there are too many loopholes that allow students out of particular courses. For example, some students can opt out of an English class to take a drama course or a film class. Biology has become optional, allowing students to take a different science course instead. To me, there needs to be a more strict accounting of what students are allowed to take. In southern Illinois, I was recently shocked to learn that it was very common to have students take the equivalent of one course in literature before graduating (with a bulk of English still reflecting outdated practices in writing grammar (some students still spend weeks learning how to diagram sentences!) They learn to write a little better, but are never exposed to a great deal of literature (British literature is unknown in vast swaths of the United States).

It seems to me that students need four years of English to learn not only about reading and writing, but to get some exposure to literature (US. British, and World). In the sciences, biology, chemistry, and at least basic physics are required. US and world history, especially aspects of such that influenced the US, and which the US influenced, are needed. A background in a foreign language is important. Use of technology should be covered. Some background in basic economics is important.

14. There would be a public acknowledgement of what everyone thinks, and no one says: there is only so much schools can do; the socioeconomics of the area the school draws from more often than we want to admit, have a strong influence on what happens to students. When the area does not take education seriously, you could open the Boston Latin school in the neighborhood, and it would indeed fail miserably. Schools should indeed be held accountable for trying, and they must show real efforts in terms of trying to constantly improve whatever it is they need to improve (and with different schools, it is different things), but schools need to be freed from the blame of what they cannot control.

Earlier this year, some local pastors attempted to lead a boycott against the Chicago Public Schools and enroll their kids at New Trier High School (the swanky gold coast public school in Winnetka that has a longer list of prominent alumni than any school in the Chicago area — private schools too!) It was a wasted effort. If the kid comes from a family that supports good education, it would work. If not, all of the money on Earth will do nothing.

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4 Responses to If I were in charge of American education …

  1. Wanda Oberdorfer says:

    As a theater arts director, I would like to encourage educators to understand that “drama” can be a very intensive “English” class. Reading comprehension, literary analysis, structural analysis, vocabulary, contextual studies, humanities studies, creative writing (the list goes on) are all skills used in a drama class. Where an English class may read a play through once, discuss it, do a class activity, etc., a drama class reads it multiple times, memorizes it, and interprets it in a far more synthesized process than class discussion or essays. (And my drama students do write essays.) Yes, there are some “drama” classes based on isolated elements, like improvisation, but to distance “drama” from the English curriculum diminishes its value within the English/Communications experience. How do we look at Journalism? Is it not a course whose objectives require a mastery of English skills? Theater is a cross-discipline course covering and utilizing every subject from history, to languages, to math, to science, to music, to physical education…I could go on.

    • teganx7 says:

      My experience has been that drama classes (sadly) are used as a replacement for rigorous courses in English (literary analysis, writing, etc), allowing students an easy way around addressing deficiencies. A drama course as you describe would certainly be something I could get behind, and not that you need it, but I applaud your work!

  2. math teacher mom says:

    I am interested in these “infinity-1 number of studies that show class size is one of the key factors in determining student achievement” of which you write. The few studies I have seen published in peer review journals are for elementary grades. Of which secondary education studies are you referring? And since when is infinity a quantifiable number?

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