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How To Fix Our Schools? Really?

How To Fix Our Schools? Really?

“How to fix our schools” is the title of a manifesto published on Sunday, October 10, in The Washington Post by Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and fourteen other school superintendents across the country.

The Future Of Our Children

The piece starts off well enough:
“It’s time for all of the adults – superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions and parents alike – to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children. Because right now, across the country, kids are stuck in failing schools, just waiting for us to do something.” 

Who can disagree with that? The writers continue: “As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their zip code or even their parents’ income – it is the quality of their teacher.”

The Importance Of Teacher Evaluation And Training

Well, I can mostly agree with that, although the other factors mentioned definitely have some bearing on a student’s success. The article goes on to analyze the defects in the teacher tenure system, and makes the assertion that “There isn’t a business in America that would survive if it couldn’t make personnel decisions based on performance. That is why everything we use in assessing teachers must be linked to their effectiveness in the classroom and focused on increasing student achievement.”

That’s fine, but we must start using more than just standardized test scores to measure teacher effectiveness and student achievement. For one thing, students take these tests just once a year. Further, standardized tests are only one measure of a teacher, and there are many others. And that’s not even dealing with all the problems surrounding standardized tests, such how good they are, and whether kids are good test-takers.  Standardized tests are also incapable of evaluating so much that is important in education, such as creative thinking and social skills.

Are Standardized Tests Necessary?

Take the example of Finland, a country that is consistently ranked the top education system in the world. Yet kids don’t start school until 7 or 8, they have shorter school days and years, teachers are paid to get credentials, education is highly valued, and Finland does not use any standardized tests.

What do the writers of this manifesto suggest as solutions to our educational problems? First they propose that all educators must be equipped with the best technology. Obviously, that’s a nice idea, but doesn’t do much to ensure a quality education.

Next they go back to the solution proposed in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”: “We also must make charter schools a truly viable option.” As to why this should happen, when 4 out of 5 charter schools are failing, these experts do not explain.

Charter Schools Are Not The Only Solution

When charter schools succeed, they are impressive. Their formula for success is a longer school day, a longer school year, lots of homework and lots of parental support, the goal being to instill an ethic of hard work in their students. However, one issue here is that charter schools, unlike regular public schools, can choose who they accept, which means, for example that children with learning disabilities, with dysfunctional families and English Language Learners are often excluded.

No Good Answers In This Manifesto

This manifesto does a great job of addressing the problems facing our nation’s schools today, but fails to come up with any convincing solutions.

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63 comments

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8:31AM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

Diana S. : Where would you *PUT* the disruptive student once they were tossed out of class?

8:19PM PDT on Oct 19, 2010

Children aren't all alike. Not only are their backgrounds not alike, but they are essentially very different. The more flexibility in the system, the less it will be an unscalable wall for many students. It needs to bend some to the tastes of the kids and their needs - for instance for exercise. The curriculum is generally terrible; the result of tug of war of committees, it is exceptionally bland and tasteless. The teachers do not have any power over this. Nor do they have time to think about it. They have at least six times as many children to take care of as they would likely feel comfortable having themselves - possibly as much as ten times. They have no time to give any one child any attention. Children learn things they find exciting or that adults they trust find to be exciting or crucial. If you pay attention to the child, they trust you, and you say something is crucial to learn and explain why, they will believe you and learn it. That is what they do. But there must be a relationship that takes time to develop. Homeschoolers tend to do far better than most schooled children because they trust their parents to teach them what matters and they get all the attention they want. Someone has committed personally to educating them. No teacher can do that for a student they barely have time to get to know. And a parent who teaches a child knows them and can tailor the curriculum to them, which is the right way around, instead of trying to cut patterns into the children.

4:31PM PDT on Oct 17, 2010

Because people are so different, I don’t think that solutions to great education are cut and dried. Some students learn very well with a lot of autonomy, independence, and very few rules. They do well with online courses and very little teacher interaction. Some people need a lot of hands on attention and need to be in smaller classes. A teacher who is successful with one will be unsuccessful with another.

For example, I once attended a school that literally handed each student a text book, an assignment sheet and said, “You should be able to finish in 11 months. Let me know if you have any questions.” I loved it. I flew through the assignments and the materials. I excelled in the program. Others had been working on the same program for two years and had hardly gotten anywhere. Their work was mediocre at best. They were frustrated because “no one taught them how.”

Some people will be voracious lifelong learners whether you put them in formal education or not. Some people don’t like to learn very much and to get them to learn takes more of a carrot and stick approach. Parents are influential but they are not the deciding factor in learning.

We must re-design education to fit individuals. We can’t continue to lump them all together. This is a problem that is will not be solved by more administration, more testing, or by throwing money at it.

8:22PM PDT on Oct 14, 2010

'Can our schools be fixed?' is not the right question. Of course they could. The question is, really, who wants to see them fail? Who benefits from their underfunding and ultimately the end of quality public education? I have see great schools run into the ground due to NCLB... Great teachers with great hearts working to overcome incredible challenges lose the passion for teaching. And when we lose heart, who will nurture in our children that passion for learning which is being beat out of them? Who wants great public education? Who would rather buy cheap labor elsewhere? Follow the money. It is not too hard to see. It makes little economic sense to those who hold the strings..... What could possibly inspire REAL reform efforts? Don't count on morality.

8:41AM PDT on Oct 14, 2010

Something needs to happen because this system is definitely flawed in so many ways.

11:08PM PDT on Oct 13, 2010

Ed "reform" seems to consist of gutting unions and union protections like seniority and tenure. It has little to do with education. Teachers have very difficult jobs in today's world and it is despicable and heinous to attack them on the basis of things they have no control over, especially relating to student attitudes and willingness (or not) to learn. As people have rightfully pointed out, these attributes come from the home, not the school or teacher. Parents are the primary educators and always have been, and this is the way it should be.
All these attacks on teachers are preparation to privatize education, as is now being done through charter schools. With the conservative ascendancy this is inevitable. The teaching profession is one of the last bastions of unionism in this country. If conservatives succeed and education is privatized, thus transferring $8 billion from public to private hands (the REAL reason for the attacks on teachers and education), you will hear no more about so-called accountability, administrators will make enormous salaries and teachers will make squat, just like employers and employees in the private sector.

9:44PM PDT on Oct 12, 2010

I am pleasantly surprised by the majority of the comments. It is time once again for the parents to take responsibility for their children, as was done back in the day. Schools were never meant to teach morals, values, character and so on and so on PLUS throwing in some watered down academics so that everyone can perform equally. Let the teachers get back to teaching and grading work that is turned in for what its actually worth. I am so tired of hearing that teachers are the reason kids are going to hell. Put the blame back where it belongs--on the parents.

9:13PM PDT on Oct 12, 2010

In high school, kids have different teachers for each subject. But if you look at which kids are doing well or badly in school, it's usually pretty consistent across the board, regardless that some teachers are better than others. It's the quality of the student that matters most as to whether or not the child succeeds and learns, and the quality of the student is most affected by parental concern for the kid's education. If the child is not taught at home that education is important, that homework is important, that listening to the teacher and obeying school rules are important, that trying to learn is super imporant, that acting out in school is non-acceptable, then that child puts no priority on learning and therefore is likely not to learn however good the teacher is because they are not motivated. Parents are *the* biggest factor in whether or not their child succeeds in school. Teachers are important, too, but not as imporant at the parents' support.

8:36PM PDT on Oct 12, 2010

Here are other ideas to fix schools: make education a priority, stop blaming the teachers and get parents involved, if necessary by punishing them for lack of involvement.
Teachers have to operate in bureaucracy that has students and parents that don't care if they learn, administrators that have never been in a classroom in their lives and parents who blame teachers for everything, though their child was eating paste and sleeping in class. Then they're surprised the kid failed.
We have to change attitude about education to make sure that people understand the importance of education before we can do anything else.

8:23PM PDT on Oct 12, 2010

Of course our public education can be fixed but not by siphoning off money to charter schools. We need to address the problems thoughtfully and practically without looking for the simple way out, which usually doesn't work. In border states many scholls have up to 85% non-English spearkers with a constant influx rotating into the system. This needs to be properly addressed. Additionally, states like my California went from one of the leaders in per capita spending to one of the worst. Parents need to step up to the plate and start being proactive in their children's education. These steps, as well as many others, need to be taken if we want our children to succeed in school.

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