There are three guarantees in America: taxes, death, and ten years from now the same discussions on how to improve public school education will be taking place. Looking ten years into the future, money will still be needed to fund education; poverty will still be an issue impacting education; students in America will still lag behind the rest of the world in math and reading; and parents, politicians, and educators will still be looking for answers to never ending education issues. Why? The answer is really quite simple: when it comes to improving education we are idiots! We continuously focus on the issues we cannot control and ignore the ones we can control. When it comes to education, we are always polishing the car, but never inflating the tires, or when we come to a seemingly impassable gorge, we spend the majority of our time paying lip service to the gorge and trying to find ways around it rather than building a bridge over it.
It is time we stop worrying about the issues we can’t control and focus on the issues we can control. Year after year, we have the same discussions about education, and year after year, we apply the same old band-aids or invent new ones to stop the bleeding. The result is we are slowly bleeding to death! Although money is definitely needed to fund education, money by itself, like charter schools, vouchers, and privatizing public schools, will not resolve the problems. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, as charter schools, vouchers, and privatizing schools do, is not a viable long-term solution to what ails public education. Trying to fix education issues the way we currently do is like trying to fix an airplane with a dangling wing in midflight. It can’t be done!
Discussions on how to improve public school education have been on-going for decades. Few of the problems we are facing today are new; they have simply been magnified by time and neglect. Issues such as education funding, classroom discipline, graduation rates, school attendance, parent involvement, and accountability are nothing new. These have always been issues, but not until the 1983 Nation at Risk Report did the public and the politicians truly begin to take notice. Over the years since the report, more attention has been given to graduation rates, teacher preparation and quality, and student accountability, but for the most part, we keep doing the same old same old year after year after year. It is as though we believe if we keep doing something long enough, even if it is wrong, eventually it will fix itself or become the new norm.
We keep trying to fix education by applying fresh paint and adjusting the seat up and down, but when all is said and done, we have done nothing but give a facelift to a sagging foundation! For example, we are constantly trying to improve middle school and high school by addressing the symptoms of a greater problem. With a few adjustments, the majority of the academic problems we see at the middle and high school levels could be resolved by strengthening the foundation these grade levels are built upon. The foundation for every level of education from elementary school through college lies in grades K – 4 reading and math, and unfortunately, that is where the foundation is sagging most in public schools.
This is not a startling revelation; educators have known this for years. However, when it comes to education improvement, the greatest focus is on graduation rates, kids who drop out of high school, and low core scores at the high school level, but the problem does not begin there! Politicians like to tell the public the reason for a dismal education system is poorly qualified teachers. That may be a small part of the problem, but it goes much deeper than that. However, mythical incompetence is something politicians can sink their teeth into without expending energy on research or actually going into schools to see for themselves. It is an easy scapegoat for all the ills that plague education. Politicians know teachers are an easy target that seldom bite back, and the public will believe anything if they are told it often enough. The truth is that most education problems are an extension of a poor reading and math foundation which directly impacts core proficiency, high school dropouts, and graduation rates. Kids with a poor foundation in reading and math are more likely to do poorly on accountability assessments or drop out of school prior to the assessments or graduation. Although this fractured foundation may be partially due to a handful of poor teachers, overall it is the result of how we conduct school, especially at the elementary school level.
It is imperative that we do everything possible to ensure a quality teacher in every classroom, but it is absolutely wrong to brand upper-level teachers as incompetent when children are arriving at their doors not proficient in reading and math. This statement is in no way intended as a condemnation of elementary school teachers; they have, by far, the most difficult and demanding job of any teacher in the school district. The point is that a child must be a reader long before he/she arrives at the middle school or the high school, or be doomed for failure. Therefore, as educators, parents, politicians, and the public we must do whatever it takes to ensure students can read at grade level and perform grave level math prior to being promoted beyond the fourth grade.
The basic foundation pieces for any academic area are reading and math comprehension. In today’s world, a student cannot be successful if deficient in either. Therefore, if we are to truly make an educational difference for children, we should look seriously at changing the way we conduct school at the elementary school level. We should look seriously at adopting the following steps. It is not rocket science; it is simply the science of common sense:
12 Steps to Improving Public Schools
- Mississippi’s third-grade reading gate is a step in the right direction. However, grade level reading gates should be established at each grade level in grades K – 4. With yearly reading assessments, students are less likely to slip through the cracks. The earlier a potential problem can be identified the better for the student. Also, a reading gate will only be as effective as the accountability instrument and score used to measure it. If the score is set too low, a disservice will be done to students and their future;
- Require grades K – 4 have at least one trained teacher assistant in each classroom. Elementary children require hands-on guidance by an adult. Learning centers are a vital part of an elementary classroom, but children still need hands on adult guidance during this time. For these centers to function as intended a teacher needs to have the freedom to pull individual students for one-on-one instruction; however, that is difficult if there is not an assistant in the classroom to monitor and work with the other children in the centers. Most people struggle to deal effectively with the needs of two or three of their own children at home, yet elementary school teachers are expected to single-handedly handle the needs of 20+ five to eight-year-olds in a classroom. That is simply ridiculous!
- Focus on language arts, math, reading, and arts in grades K – 4;
- Introduce science as a separate subject in grade 4;
- Introduce social studies as a separate subject in grade 5;
- All teachers K – 12 are important to the overall academic growth of students, but the teachers with the most responsibility for the academic success of students are elementary teachers in grades K – 4. To make a difference, it is imperative that we beg, borrow, and buy the best teachers for these grades. To entice the best teachers into grades K – 4, the starting base salary for K – 4 elementary teachers should be raised by at least $10,000 over the starting pay for all other teacher positions (Yes, I mean K – 4 teachers should be the highest paid teachers in the school district!). In addition, accountability standards for math and reading in grades K – 4 should be raised, and K – 4 teachers held accountable for their student’s success. Teaching children to read and do math are the two most important responsibilities of a school district; therefore, teachers who teach these areas should be the best minds and the highest paid teachers in the school district, and they should also be held the most accountable for student success. Unless a child has a learning disability, an emotional problem that derails learning, or comes from an educationally dysfunctional family (i.e. excessive absences) there should be no excuse for a child to finish grades K – 4 unable to read or perform grade level math skills;
- STOP expecting elementary teachers to be ALL KNOWING wizards of knowledge! Recruit elementary teachers with strong math, writing, and science backgrounds. Allow elementary teachers to specialize in the area of their strength. To give students the best teachers, tie teachers to students rather than classrooms. Rather than move young children all over the building, move teachers to the students. STOP territorial nesting!
- Require all public school teachers to take a writing proficiency exam as a requirement for certification. Teachers do not have be master writers, but there is no room in education for teachers who cannot write a coherent sentence with proper subject/verb agreement;
- In grades 5 – 12, pay teachers in core areas (math, language arts, science, and social studies) a supplement like that received by coaches with extra responsibilities. In this era of teacher accountability, teachers teaching non-core subjects do not have the same level of accountability as core teachers. It does not make sense to pay the physical education teacher and the dance teacher the same money as the mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies teachers who are held to a higher level of accountability for their students’ success in the classroom. It is also ludicrous to hang onto the notion that to some degree all teachers teach the core subjects, and they are just as accountable as the core teachers and deserve the same pay. That is simply not true!
- Set aside job-embedded collaborative professional learning time for all language arts, math, and reading teachers in grades K – 4; language arts, math, reading, and science teachers in grade 5; and language arts, math, reading, science, and social studies teachers in grades 6 – 12. The research is very clear as to the positive impact of teacher collaboration on classroom instruction practices and student achievement;
- Settle on a rigorous and challenging curriculum, and when parents or any other adult complains that it is too complicated and they cannot help their children with homework, DO NOT throw the curriculum out! Instead, require the local school district to establish HOMEWORK CENTERS where students can go for help and parents can be tutored so they can help their child at home;
- Get rid of grade levels for K – 4 based on age! Allow students to advance to the next level based on reading and math comprehension only. QUIT promoting kids based on a number (age), and promote them based on comprehension and application of the curriculum.
Will these steps work? Yes! Will anyone listen to these steps? Maybe a few. Will these steps happen? Not likely. Why not? Adults both in and outside the education profession are too self-centered, jealous, political, territorial, and just plain afraid of change! As a result, we will continue applying band-aids to fix education problems, and ten years from now, we will still be asking the same questions. Without putting some grunt into school improvement and making something happen that focuses on the needs of children and less on the needs and speculative imbalance of politicians, the public, and yes even educators, ten years from now, the debate on how to improve public education will still be raging. That is unless public schools have not been legislated out of existent by then. Yet, even then, most likely ten years down the road the charter and privatized schools will be having the same problems as the public schools, especially, since they are little more than carbon copies of public schools with less restrictions. The only way to make K – 12 education work as it was intended, regardless if it is a public school or charter school, is to focus on the foundation. The only way to move a vehicle with flat tires is to inflate the tires!
©Jack Linton, PhD March 18, 2016