14 Radically Sane Ways to Improve Mississippi Schools (or Schools in any State for that Matter)

August and another school year has arrived. As a former principal, I look at August as the time of year for implementation of new ideas that have been discussed and planned during the previous school year. Plans designed to hopefully make school better for both students and teachers. After countless hours of study and planning sessions, August is the opening curtain for what the school administration always hopes will be well received improvements over the previous school year. If the principal is lucky, one or two of his well-intentioned improvements will be greeted with approval while decisions to tweak or maybe even toss less well received improvements will have to be considered. Regardless, of the reception, the opening of school in August also means it is time for the principal to start thinking about follow-up plans as well as projecting what critical issues may need to be addressed in the future. It is a never ending cycle.

After spending twenty-one years in school administration, it is difficult during this time of year not to think about improvements that would make school better for students as well as faculty and staff. As a principal, any improvements I planned had to be within policy boundaries, had to be cost effective, had to be enforceable, and most important, the improvements had to be in the best interests of students first and then faculty and staff. However, now that I am retired, I have the luxury to dream a little when putting together a list of school improvements, so the 14 items presented in this blog come from my dream list of ways to improve school and positively impact student learning. None of them are earth shattering, but each one of them could make a positive impact on how schools do business. The list is not in any kind of order, but rather constitutes random thoughts about what I believe could make a difference for students and teachers.

 14 Radically Sane Ways to Improve Schools:

(1)   To Improve Schools: Treat the best teachers like CELEBRITY STARS! Provide them higher pay and more privileges!

Rationale: Do whatever it takes to keep great teachers in the classroom and out of administration, private business, or any other number of things they could do to make more money.

Quote:  “Education can be encouraged from the top-down but can only be improved from the ground up” – Sir Ken Robinson

(2)   To Improve Schools: Require school principals and assistant principals in grades K – 12 to teach a class in their area of expertise once each quarter or at least once each semester. The class must be taught using the same curriculum, instructional practices, guidelines and protocols as established for all classroom teachers in the subject area taught.

Rationale: It is crucial that school administrators stay in touch with what it is like to be a teacher in front of the classroom. In today’s world of accountability, for the school administrator to effectively evaluate teacher practice, he/she must have a practical working knowledge of the instructional practices being evaluated. The administrator should not only be able to evaluate instructional practices, the school administrator should be able to model the instructional practices as well.

Quote: “Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.” – Will Durant

(3)   To Improve Schools: Require a certification process for education consultants prior to their working in any school.

Rationale: Anyone can hang a sign, create business cards, and market themselves as an educational consultant who can improve schools. However, the question is do they actually have the expertise to back up their claims? Some may, but many do not! Billions of dollars are being spent across the United States on consultant led professional development that is neither relevant nor likely to provide the school improvement advertised. Just because a person spent 25+ years in education, made a lot of contacts in education during his/her career, hopefully worked for an excellent school district, or is good friends with the superintendent does not necessarily mean that person will make a good consultant. Granted some of the above may indeed contribute to an individual’s success as a school improvement consultant, but there should also be a required certification process involving some kind of accountability measure that all educational consultants should be required to complete prior to offering their services.

Quote: “All too many consultants, when asked, ‘What is 2 and 2?’ respond, ‘What do you have in mind?’” – Norman Ralph Augustine

(4)   To Improve Schools: Other than student management systems, teacher/student classroom computers, and some online web-based courses, eliminate canned computer programs and computer labs that are usually outdated or in poor maintenance. Embrace BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)!

Rationale: Technology budgets in schools are skyrocketing, but it can be argued if the impact on learning is worth the cost. Other than using technology as a management tool for taking roll and emailing parents, there is little that expensive classroom technology can offer that a student’s personal cell/smart phone cannot also offer equally as well if not better. For example, many classrooms today are equipped with smart boards that are used as little more than glorified overhead projectors for note taking and PowerPoint presentations. Also, it is not uncommon for a school to spend ten to fifty thousand dollars or more on web based programs with subscriptions that must be renewed yearly. When the cost of such subscriptions is calculated based on the number of students the program actually reaches, schools and students would often be better off if the money was used to hire more teachers or teacher assistants? The argument that money spent on personnel is a recurring expense as compared to the one time expense of technology becomes a non-issue when the recurring cost of annual technology subscriptions and maintenance are factored into the equation. Technology is a tool of education and not the savior of education; therefore, it is time to STOP trying to find short cuts to learning by spending money on technology. Learning needs the human touch, so spend the money being spent on instructional technology on quality teachers. Most students in our schools come equipped every day with a smart phone that is up to date and more powerful than the outdated clunkers in most computer labs and teacher classrooms. Allow teachers to allow their students to use these devices in the classroom. The argument that it would cause too many disruptions is an overused excuse of antiquated thinking.

Quote: BYOD attempts to leverage existing assets that are natural to learners, and not subject to Draconian district policies. – Terry Heick.

(5)   To Improve Schools: Allow teacher representation on the school board.

Rationale: In the real world, bankers sit on financial committees, doctors sit on medical committees, and lawyers sit on legal committees, so why shouldn’t teachers sit on the most important school committee in the school district – the school board? Teacher representation on the school board would certainly go a long way toward improving teacher morale and teacher ownership in the district mission not to mention provide relevant input that is sometimes missing in school board meetings.

Quote: “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” – Mark Twain.

(6)   To Improve Schools: Provide embedded collaborative time for teachers to be professionals.

Rationale: Schools and teachers who refuse or who are reluctant to share ideas and practices are obsolete!

Quote:   “The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.” – Thomas Stallkamp

(7)   To Improve Schools: STOP being territorial, and allow children to enroll in online classes and work from home.

Rationale: Educators need to embrace the best learning environment for the child. For some students the social aspect of school may be a distraction for them or their family, so why force them to go to school when they can do the same work from home? Education is about learning; it is not about where it takes place! Although the impact of technology in the classroom on learning can be argued, the impact of technology as a tool to tear down school walls and open doors of opportunities for learners of all ages is unquestionable.

Quote: “Isn’t it ridiculous for education to lag behind in an innovation that has revolutionized communication, workflow, and information dissemination? That doesn’t sound very ‘educated’ to us.” – John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems

(8)   To Improve Schools:  STOP putting students in grades based on age.

Rationale: Just because students were born in the same year doesn’t always mean they are at the same place cognitively or maturity wise. Advancement/placement should be based on achievement rather than age. It is time we stopped trying to stuff all children in the same pigeon hole! Promote students based on academics and maturity and not because they had a birthday.

Quote: “Being ready isn’t enough; you have to be prepared for a promotion or any other significant change.” – Pat Riley

(9)   To Improve Schools: DO AWAY with grades, and STOP ranking kids like race horses!

Rationale: The sole purpose for grades is to rank children! Grades are for teachers, parents, and colleges to rank and label children as excellent, average, or failure. In today’s grading systems, it is all about where you begin that matters, but shouldn’t it be about where you end that matters most? I’ve never understood grading in school. Success in everything you do in life is measured by where you finish except for grades in school, and then it’s measured by your average performance. Who made up that stupid rule?

Quote:   “If you read my sixth-grade report card, you’d notice that I started with unsatisfactory grades. My teacher sent a note home to my mother that said I was a ‘good boy,’ but I needed to be watched. She put a ‘body’ on me. Our children are trying to tell us something. They are trying to tell the black mayors, school superintendents, teachers – all of us, that they need a whole lot of bodies on them.” – Bill Cosby

(10)   To Improve Schools:  Require college and university education professors to teach at least one semester in the public school classroom every five years.

Rationale: Like school administrators college education professors need to stay in touch with the reality of teaching in the classroom. To teach and advise prospective teachers, they need to know there is more to teaching than what can be found in a textbook on teaching theory. The best way to do that is by requiring periodic teaching assignments in public school settings.

Quote: “I am my own Universe, I my own Professor.” – Sylvia Ashton-Warner

(11)   To Improve Schools: Take reading and writing seriously!

Rationale: Teach children to read and write well! Everything they do in life will depend on these two skills. Teach them to write cursive; cursive writing is a motor skill that scientists are discovering is an important tool for cognitive development, particularly in training the brain to learn. In grades K – 6, focus on reading, writing, math, and the arts with major emphasis on reading and writing. I am not trying to ignore science and social studies, but if a child can read and write and has the discipline associated with the arts, he/she can learn science and social studies through reading and writing in K – 6 and departmentalized focus in grades 7 – 12. Also, require students to take a writing class (non-fiction, fiction, journalism, or business writing) each year beginning with 7th grade.

Quote:  “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.” – John Cheever

(12)   To Improve Schools: Recognize a child not coming to school is a PARENTAL PROBLEM, so STOP penalizing schools for a parent problem! Charge parents a STATE TRUANCY TAX for each day their child has an unexcused truancy from school. If the tax is not paid, assign parents and truant students to community service and enforce it!

Rationale: It is the parent’s job to get their children to school, and it is the teacher’s job to teach them and ensure they learn once they get to school. Instead of taking money from schools for truancy take it from parents who can’t, won’t, or don’t know how to be adults and get their kids to school. Schools are committed to teaching kids; parents must in turn be committed to getting their kids to school.

Quote: “The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.” – Martina Navratilova

(13)   To Improve Schools: REWARD teachers who do not miss school! Provide MONETARY INCENTIVES for teachers who do not miss school for illness, personal time, and only for very limited professional development.

Rationale: We are spending far too much money on substitute teachers. We are also doing a grave injustice to children by putting their education all too frequently in the hands of substitute teachers. Most substitutes are well intentioned people who do their best to follow the teacher’s directions; however, if substitutes could teach a classroom adequately, there would be no need to hire teachers. Subs are poor replacements for certified teachers; therefore, students are the ones who wind up on the short end of the deal. So, why not provide incentives to keep teachers in the classroom? Of course, some might argue that being in the classroom is what teachers are paid for in the first place.

Quote: “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.” – Gail Godwin

(14)   To Improve Schools: Instead of always focusing on areas in which students are weak, FOCUS on their strengths!

Rationale: All too often, we spend more time focusing on a child’s weaknesses and not enough time focusing on his/her strengths. We spend so much time trying to keep all students at the same level that we end up ignoring or neglecting the areas in which a child may be able to excel. In the real world all people are not good at the same things; people have different talents, so why not focus on a kid’s talent rather than his/her weaknesses. Why must all students be even or all the same?   If a child’s aptitude leans more to art than math, why not allow that child to focus more on art? This doesn’t mean that educators should ignore the core disciplines such as math, science, language arts and social studies, but rather it means educators should stop trying to force all children to be the same and understand that it is okay if some children have greater interests in other areas than the core disciplines. Such an educational mindset would probably take a big bite out of high school dropouts and would more than likely have a positive impact on student discipline in the classroom.

Quote:    “In a society that tries to standardize thinking, individuality is not highly prized.” – Alex Grey

There are probably other ideas for improvement I could have listed, but these are the ones that have been stuck in my head the longest. You may not agree with any of them, but that is okay. One good thing about being retired is that I no longer have to seek anyone’s approval but my wife’s, and she is very good at ignoring me or putting me in my place if she doesn’t like what I have to say.

JL

©Jack Linton, August 3, 2014

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