“Fixing” Education

Posted on April 2, 2013



My 7-Point Rant for Education

Some time ago I had a good conversation with someone who was wondering how we can fix our current (2012) education system, particularly in California. It made me think whether I had any “ready answers”, if I could reasonably string along my thoughts to make sense, or what proposal I would have if someone asked me “how would you fix it?”

So here is my 7-Point Rant (“Plan”) for fixing education. It is brief, perhaps rambling, and likely to have several points on which people can disagree or go off on tangents—but that is good, for a healthy discussion can help.  I concede that more or fewer points can be made, and that for each one a whole discussion can be had. But that is not my point here. My focus is more on a need for a comprehensive approach, pointing out  what I see as the obvious “there is no single solution that will fix everything”—which I think is crucial and needed in a short-term-thinking, expect-quick-results, what’s-the-simple-answer, expect-an-easy-turnaround merry go-round approach we sometimes take to problem solving.

I will start with my packed one-sentence answer. Education reform needs to be: “Student-centered, teacher-driven, community-supported, research-based, real world informed, future-bound.”

Now to unpack that a bit, here are my 7 points:


1.       Teachers are professionals so let’s pay, train, and treat them as such.

It is silly that we pay those with whom we entrust the education of our children a relatively low amount compared to what we are willing to spend for entertainment (movies, sports…). We can get into the whole debate about pension-reform, public benefits, summer break, and whatnot, but for the amount of work that it takes to teach well, the pay is not enough. Higher pay should not be a blanket approach, and merit-based pay can and should be explored. But connected to that is the thoughtful approach to training teachers in much the same way we train in other professions and give them due respect as public service professionals. We should of course neither vilify nor sanctify over the top—teachers are people who display the best of humanity and teachers also make stupid mistakes. Let us not use extreme examples to defend or attack the profession. Right now I think we tend to “improve teaching” by adding more requirements and expectations—but not matching that with pay.


2.       Be research-focused and data driven, but with people in mind.

Much like the approach that Professional Learning Communities take to student improvement, we should do something similar for teachers. But the main point is that it is guided and driven by data, especially to provide common objective comparisons and starting points. We can have a discussion about the data: what should be collected and measured, what is important to know, how it will interpreted, and who will have access to it. But the data should frame a discussion of improvement, not disparaging. Teachers and students should have the opportunity to receive support for improvement. If the data shows a teacher is not performing well, then there should be a process and plan for helping the teacher improve, with clear peer-supported outcomes as to what will happen if goals are met or not (continue to support or dismiss).


3.       Reduce class sizes; give students the support they need.

The math is simple, as they say. If you try to teach more than 25 students, you make trade-offs in the quality and amount of time you can provide for student support and intervention. With larger classes it is easier to default to a lecture or to attempt misguided group work (it’s a skill that not many take seriously). Class sizes should be manageable for the teachers and the students, but that takes money. Some will say that a good teacher can teach a class of any size. True, but we tend to have that scenario more in well-off schools with college-prep courses. “Improvement” school with “at-risk youth” tend to serve more as prisons for the teachers and the students—prisons that can sometimes only really be changed when teachers get the opportunity, and time, to serve as role models and provide one-on-one support in smaller classrooms.


4.       We need to invest in education, which means long-term thinking for all of us.

We are all in it together or we suffer the consequences of poor investment in education. Colleges, universities, and businesses have already been experiencing this for years. Universities complain that graduating high school students need to take remedial classes in college. Businesses complain that students do not enter the workforce prepared. We have a drop-out crisis that strains support services (night school, community colleges, social services, etc). All of these are effects of an underfunded or mis-funded approach to education. Yes, we may say “but we are already putting billions into education and I don’t see any change!”  True, some of the change will not be as concrete as a test score or an award. But well-funded schools and districts produce safe and enriching environments where students and teachers thrive in ways that are not always measurable but which provide benefits to a larger society. Part of the challenge is for taxpayers who have no children in schools, and may not care—or if the children in schools look different than when you went to school (Latinos, immigrant, diverse, English Language Learners). No matter the students, we invest in it all together, or we suffer together—it takes money and it takes time. It is fair to ask what we get for the taxes paid into education. But we should also ask what we get when we choose not to pay them. I am not saying to just throw a bunch of money at the problem, because accountability still matters. But let us not default to a response of “it’s a spending problem, let’s cut, cut, cut”.


5.       Get involved or ease off on your complaining.

It is easy to complain about what is wrong with education. But how many of us teach, attend PTA meetings, attend school board meetings, volunteer for events, follow education policy, etc? Tony Danza taught for a year to realize that teaching is hard…and he apologized to his teachers for how he behaved as a student. You do not need to teach for a year but we should think about how we get involved in our education system and if we do not, how we complain about it. But we all have the responsibility to vote and provide support or accountability to our education system. So whether you have kids or not, ask yourself how you know what is going on at your local school and how you can connect to it to assess its needs and areas of improvement. If you like to complain, you may find you can complain about something that may actually improve the school.


6.       Evaluate and Align the curriculum with real-world needs, be it for the college-bound or vocational.

This is happening more with the Common Core Standards and with a renewed look at the value of vocational education. We can start by asking “what’s the point of going to school? What’s the value of school? Why send our kids to 6 hours of ‘schooling’ five days a week?” I think we generally think it is to prepare them for the “real world” and get a good job. But many times that is not what happens. So the curriculum—what is being taught— should more or less clearly indicate the value. I am not saying every single thing should be linked to a “work skill” and that all students should like it, but if we want to develop a love for, let’s say Shakespeare, then we owe ourselves and our students more than just “you have to learn it”—because often we do not. We memorize it, sure, for the short term. But out of a good English class you should be able to clearly take away culture appreciation, writing skills, presentation skills, vocabulary development—skills I can trace back, even if I do not remember all of a Midsummer’s Night Dream.


7.       Encourage innovation but evaluate and align to Standards.

So many schools are hubs of community, sources of education, and spaces for teaching and learning. That should be supported and nurtured. Be it project-based learning, charter-schools, restorative-justice models, blended-learning, and the like, schools provide the place where we learn about the world and each other, as well as where we experiment how we learn. So let’s try it out but evaluate what is working and what is not working for the purpose of improving. But as we experiment, we keep the goals in mind about the enduring understandings we want our kids to leave when they graduate. As teachers we do this every time with a lesson plan: develop a learning objective but with flexibility as to how students will meet that objective and develop a plan around how the student will get there, with support and evaluation.


Okay, I will stop here, though I could ramble some more. If you want to dock me for not citing sources, go ahead. But maybe we can still have a nice discussion out it.


Posted in: Education