This election year education has been pushed aside, as we're busy witch hunting, race-baiting, and re-hashing every mouth-foaming issue from abortion to gay marriage. Yet, our schools are failing so severely that our children rank 24th in the world in science proficiency, 25th in math, and graduation rates in the U.S. have been plummeting since the 1970s.
In spite of these numbers being completely embarrassing and damaging, very few people are concerned enough about this issue. Which is one that, if solved (or improved), would have a direct effect on crime rates, teen pregnancy, poverty, and a host of other social ills. As parents, teachers, and administrators point fingers in every direction, the fact of the matter is everyone deserves a little of the blame for our failing schools.
There are people out there who are trying to cut through the red tape and attempt miracles. Some ideas are old school, and others completely turn our nation's ideas about education on its collective head. Here are 7 radical ideas about public education that could save our kids.
1. No More Testing/No More Grades
While yearly standardized tests and the quarterly report cards are easy ways to measure academic success, they may not be at all accurate.
Teaching to the test has destroyed the classroom. Instead of discussions, there are worksheets. Memorizing replaces learning, and there is no room in the school day for meandering off topic in the pursuit of actual knowledge. A culture of cheating (be it schools or students) has come to seem perfectly logical in this illogical system. The end result can actually leave children less educated than more so -- if reading books, discussing current events, art, and recess are eliminated so students can study for the standardized tests. The testing that has dominated during the No Child Left Behind years has been killing any enthusiasm for learning and encouraging drop-outs among both the students and the teaching staff.
The A - F grading system can be equally misleading of student success, and some schools have embraced portfolios that more fully describe the challenges and achievements, rather than grades.
Releasing the pressures of both of these institutions could open the doors for "true learning and engagement" according to Alfie Kohn, and various teacher organizations around the country.
2. Longer Days, 12-Month School Year
President Obama, among others, advocates a school year that is not based on the no longer relevant agrarian calendar. The summer brain drain is a very real problem, as is the lack of time to truly immerse our children in the necessary subjects to make them proficient and successful. If children attend school year round, with two breaks of three weeks, their retention rates dramatically increase. Some cities have already adopted this calendar and are seeing fantastic results.
Especially relevant to children living in poverty, one school has started offering dinner to its students before they leave for the day. A hungry student cannot concentrate or thrive. No matter how many stellar teachers, computers, or enrichment programs are offered, a child who lives in poverty is going to have a tough time concentrating when basic survival is at the top of her mind. Extending the school day and feeding students physically as well as mentally, is one of the answers.
3. Forget About the Parents
A strange thing has happened in the past few decades as teachers struggle with over-involved helicopter parents that take up too much of their time demanding Jimmy get an "A," while some parents never bother to show up even if their child is being kicked out of school. Empowering teachers (and bringing back the authority and respect of yore) through greater autonomy, a higher salary, and longer school days (see above) can help entrench a great teacher into the lives of students. Especially students at risk.
If parents are unwilling to conform to the positive methods of parental involvement, limiting the parental involvement whether through public boarding schools or stricter policies about parent/teacher interaction could help everyone focus on the job at hand.
4. Students Teaching Students
Cooperative learning is a method where students sink or swim together in the classroom. A concept that has been around for awhile but is still on the fringe, cooperative learning would be uniquely effective in the modern classroom where teacher authority is diminishing. Useful in any subject, students are divided into teams and each student's work benefits another -- making everyone on the team valuable and accountable. Results of this method include higher retention rates, increased engagement, improved oral communication skills, and higher rates of satisfaction.
5. A Union Overhaul
When teachers were primarily women, administrators were primarily men, and sexual harassment wasn't even a phrase that existed -- unions were crucial in protecting teachers from discrimination. Additionally, pay raises and cuts in benefits to an already underpaid profession were saved by the power of a strong teachers union.
Today, the unions are protecting mediocrity along with the pensions of retired teachers. A strong union is still necessary to protect an underpaid profession that needs more, not less, encouragement for young, talented, and dedicated people to join the ranks of our nation's teachers. But the institution has too many safety nets in place such as tenure and the unfathomable "rubber rooms" of New York City, where disciplined teachers go to die. President Obama's scalpel needs to be unsheathed, and policies that benefit senior teachers regardless of skill have got to go.
6. An iPad in Every Desk
While a lecture in front of a chalk board is going to look positively antiquated to today's kids, embracing technology can be challenging when schools are struggling to pay for basic needs. But integrating tech into the classroom is proving to be an important part of the learning process for today's kids. A rural, working-class Washington school with an ambitious superintendent and school board has put an iPad in the hands of every member of the Naselle High School freshman class and receiving an enthusiastic response from the students who can complete their homework, record lectures, do research, and store all of their work throughout high school. Additionally, teachers meet to brainstorm, explore apps, and find ways to continually engage students through the latest technology.
7. No More Charter Schools
One and a half million students annually are enrolled in this stop gap designed to work in neighborhoods where public schools are struggling. As someone who has lived in these "up-and-coming" neighborhoods, charter schools have seemed like our only hope of going public and getting a quality education for our kids. However, charters are creating an entirely new problem. As parents like us put our time and energy into a charter, our local public school gets the shaft. Again. I don't have any answers for parents who just want their children to go to a good kindergarten without having to take out a loan. But charters are where involved parents go, leaving public schools to die.
Education shouldn't only be for the wealthy, or the kids who have parents who manage to get them into a charter, or win the lottery. Incidentally, in spite of the wild success of some charters as seen in Waiting for "Superman," one in five is able to achieve these results. Leaving four that aren't so hot and all of them who are run by corporations meant for profit.
Image via iboy_daniel/Flickr