Education 2012: An educator's recipe for fixing schools
Illustration by Josh Flanigan
In previous essays, I’ve made it clear that I’m no fan of existing efforts to reform education. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the New York State Agenda for Education Reform all seem like heavy-handed attempts to fatten a pig by weighing the cow. I admire the valiant battle waged by the Buffalo Teacher’s Federation against the absurdity of teacher evaluations based on test scores of students who don’t attend school or speak English.
Readers might rightly ask, then, what reforms I would suggest to improve student achievement. It’s time, you might say, to put up or shut up. And, in fact, no less a luminary than former gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino posed that very challenge. “Well then,” he said in an email, “tell me a better way.” Okay, Carl, here goes: Based on thirty-four years experience teaching kindergarten through postgraduate college, I offer my abridged home brew for fixing schools. These ideas fly in the face of prevailing political trends, so I’m under no illusion that anyone is going to listen. But hey, an educator can dream.
1. Initiate a National War on Ignorance.
Forget the failed war on drugs; use that money to do some actual good by starting a campaign to change American attitudes about education, which are currently piss-poor. We did it with cigarettes. Once ubiquitous, smoking in public—when it’s even allowed—now practically makes you a social pariah. Madison Avenue convinced us we need designer jeans, Starbucks coffee, and smart phones. It can do the same with education.
Imagine it. The message that learning is vital appears on billboards and TV. It saturates the internet, thunders from every pulpit. The eleven-o’clock news starts with “Did your children attend school today?” Actors and pop stars make public service announcements as conditions of their parole. When honor roll students are depicted as being as cool as teenage vampires, every kid in America will want an education.
2. Put teachers in charge.
School administrators are necessary—for administration. It’s questionable, however, whether a former business teacher who hasn’t been in the classroom for fifteen years can lay much pedagogical acumen on seasoned science, math, and art teachers. Administrators frequently accept administrative positions as stepping stones to better positions. As they travel along their career paths, they feather their CV nests with “flavor of the month” initiatives. I once assisted in developing a highly touted comprehensive ten-year district improvement plan that no one remembered five years later.
Teachers tend to be less transient, often staying in one place for thirty-plus years. They are repositories of school history. Educational Leaders would be teachers chosen by their peers to oversee evaluations, address educational challenges, and maintain consistent pedagogical initiatives through shared decision making. An Educational Leader would not receive extra pay, but would have greatly reduced course loads. School administrators would still create schedules, manage budgets, enforce discipline, and stand in the hall and wave as kids arrive. This could be tried now in magnet or charter schools.
3. Restore respect for teachers and schools.
If you are over fifty, you remember when educators were admired and respected. This was before movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and The Breakfast Club popularized the image of teachers as insensitive dolts. Just as unrealistic are the largely fictionalized “true-life” teachers portrayed in films like Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, and Dangerous Minds. There were few, if any, teachers like this when we were in school, and it’s no different now. Teachers are not miracle workers or saints. But few resemble Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller either.
The truth is, there are far fewer bad teachers than you probably imagine. Low performing schools are virtually always in areas hindered by poverty or language barriers, and need the greatest support and encouragement. Instead, they are threatened with accountability for that over which they have very limited control.
A continuous drumbeat of blame is undermining the morale of the professionals educating our children. For a comprehensive account of the problems with standardized testing and teacher accountability, read Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
4. Emphasize the arts.
Stop sacrificing the arts to raise standardized test scores. Years of brain development and cognitive research link arts to academic achievement, social and emotional development, creative problem solving, and civic engagement. This is what we say we want out of our schools, right?
5. Make charter schools what they were meant to be.
Charter schools were intended as laboratories for experimental education. They should demonstrate this intent before being granted a charter, and their funding should not be diverted from traditional public schools. Charter school enrollment should reflect the populations from which they draw or they fail as experiments. Successful charter schools should welcome other public schools to learn from them or they fail in their mission.
6. Make all schools excellent.
Fully fund all schools equitably. Then provide extra funding where immigrant populations, single parent households, socio-economic challenges, and other known educational obstacles are prevalent. So Buffalo would receive more per pupil funding than Clarence, for instance.
7. End school budget votes and funding through property taxes.
All funding should be state or national. We don’t vote on police, street sanitation, or parks and recreation budgets; why should education, a vital national birthright, be left to the capricious whims of provincial voters?
8. Learn from countries that do better.
Specifically, Finland. My plan would closely emulate Finland’s model because following best practice is what everyone agrees we should do. The well-funded Finnish education system emphasizes equity and quality over choice; there are no private or charter schools. All students receive free health care.
Virtually every child attends free or low-cost daycare from infancy through kindergarten, with one daycare teacher and two nurses for every twelve students. The emphasis is on play, but children learn nutrition, health, communication, empathy, responsibility, self-awareness, and respect for the individual. Parents are welcome.
Formal education starts at age seven. There’s no selecting, tracking, or streaming; students of all capabilities learn together. Nine years of required education is followed by non-compulsory academic or vocational training.
Teaching is a highly respected, well-paid, unionized profession requiring a master’s degree. Competition to enter teaching is fierce, with only ten percent making the cut, same as doctors and lawyers. Teachers are given complete autonomy, right down to choosing their own textbooks. Classes are small, rarely more than twenty. Teachers spend just four hours a day in the classroom, and two hours a week on professional development. There’s no merit pay.
Finland’s government does not gather data to assess schools; teachers and principals are trusted to report how they are doing. Finland’s Director of Education Pasi Sahlberg has said, “We know very well that the inequality that our students have through the parents’ socio-economic background is a very strong factor explaining their performance, and, in many cases, this is far beyond the teacher’s control.”
Finns study art, music, cooking, industrial arts, and two languages. Homework is minimal. Finnish students eat one or two healthy meals a day at school. Schools are spotlessly clean, and the atmosphere is relaxed and informal. Struggling students are tutored, with thirty percent getting extra help during their first nine years. Tests are scarce; grading is often verbal, and for the first six years, children are not measured at all. Finns take only one standardized test, at age sixteen.
Finnish students beat the pants off other nations in international measurements in science, reading, and math, and yet Finland spends thirty percent less per student than the US does. Norway is similar in size and culture, but follows an education model similar to ours; they rank where we do.
9. Don’t expect overnight success.
We don’t give schools enough time to implement one educational philosophy before replacing it with a trendy new one. Radical improvement doesn’t occur overnight. If we overhaul the system tomorrow and remain consistent, we could expect comprehensive results by the time this year’s newborns reach their senior year. Seventeen years may sound like a long time, but if we had spent ten years transforming our system after “A Nation at Risk” identified the problem in 1983, last year’s graduating seniors would have provided the first cradle to grad results. Think long term, not quick fix.
Artist, educator, and writer Bruce Adams taught in a public high school for thirty years.