When people talk about problems with our schools, I hear a lot of blame: blaming, teachers, blaming parents, blaming kids. And when they talk about how to reform schools, I hear a lot of “get tough” measures: get tough on schools, get tough on teachers, get tough on kids.
What I don’t hear are the sort of obvious, logical reforms that educators – people who have the most direct experience in education – advocate.
None of my ideas are original, but I have compiled them here to give you a sample of what what one teacher, one person who actually works with students on a daily basis, strongly believes would make a difference.
1. Small Class Size. I am fortunate to have one class of just six students. That class gets three times as much work done as my other classes and has three times as much time left over for fun and games. That’s a happy and productive class. Until this semester, my idea of a dream class size was 16 students. But from this year’s experience, I see that a class of 6 students can easily soar way beyond what a class of even 16 can accomplish.
I have taught a class with upwards of 30 and a class of less than 20. Both were just as efficiently run. I have pretty good classroom management skills. This has more to do with a teacher’s ability to plan according to the group s/he has and to facilitate these activities accordingly than class size. Also, study after study shows that class size has minimal, if any, impact on student learning (I’ll let you Google the research yourself, because it’s not hard to find). Finally, I’ve seen what happens when schools make a big deal about this, and the money spent on hiring more teachers generally leads to the budget getting cut in other ways which are far more detrimental to kids. What’s the point in having a low student-teacher ratio if have those classrooms don’t have enough books, calculators, etc.?
2. Small School Size. In his book, the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s refers to Dunbar’s number, the maximum number of people in an organization that can form a cohesive group. This number is approximately 150. At six students per class, that would be about two classes per grade from kindergarten through eighth grade, along with teachers and support staff. I have worked in schools about that size (although the classes were larger), and they feel more like a community than larger schools. This decreases student alienation, and strengthens relationships. To further strengthen relationships, teachers should stay with the same cohort of children for multiple years. This can help to create an emotionally safe and secure environment for learning. It also reduces the time students need to adjust to a new teacher so they can more quickly allow themselves to open up and fully participate.
I agree with this, but I think there are ways to create these benefits without making a smaller school. I also agree that cycling through the grades with the same group of kids is amazing—I taught my same group of kids from 7th to 8th grade, and I have a few friends who have done this for several years in a row—but then again, there are drawbacks. If a teacher does this, it means that every year s/he is making brand-new lesson plans, unit plans, etc. instead of being able to create materials to reuse/polish again for the next year, and this can be stressful.
3. Goodbye Summer Vacation. Come on – we all know that the school calendar in the United States is antiquated. We spend 180 days of the year learning and the entire summer trying our best to forget everything we just learned. When school starts up in fall, we play catch-up to make up for all the backsliding that’s occurred over the summer. School calendars should be year-round and have their vacations timed to meet the local climate demands. So, in the North East, there should be a vacation scheduled in the dead of winter, when people take their lives in their hands to brave the treacherous roads to an expensively heated school. And, in the South, a vacation would make sense when students risk heat stroke on their way to an expensively air-conditioned school in the height of summer.
Can’t argue with this. I have another friend who teaches at a year-round school, where every few months there is a break lasting 2-3 weeks. I think this would probably be ideal for students and teachers, who might need a little recharging every now and then. I do think that if we continue to stay with the “summer vacation” model, then we should create more opportunities for learning in the summer which are available to all students. And I think this would be a great time to offer teachers more free professional development opportunities.
4. Reinstate P.E. and Recess! Physical education is good for brain development, and students consolidate learning while they are playing at recess. Plus, as a teacher I can tell you that students who get a chance to run around are much more able to focus in class. It’s unnatural, and counter-productive, to force children to sit still all day.
Agree with this as well. On another note, I think physical education teachers should be held to as high a standard as academic teachers. I think their influence could go a long way in staving off the obesity and physical problems in our country. A friend and I were talking about how we hated gym in school; neither of us were athletically inclined, and recalled gym teachers who did not really do much to work with the students who weren’t already naturally athletic. This is the equivalent of a math or reading teacher only working with the on-level or advanced students in a classroom and ignoring the ones most in need.
5. Utilize Multiple Intelligences. Music, visual arts, kinesthetic learning, and exposure to nature should all be fully incorporated into the curriculum. Right now, we are so focused on the laudable goals of improving math and reading skills that we forget that those skills will more easily be improved if we accommodate different learning styles. There should be dancing in math class and nature walks in English class.
Yes—but only if it serves a purpose. If dancing in math class gets a student to learn a particular concept, wonderful. But dancing in math class for the sake of the teacher being able to say s/he is trying to access multiple intelligences? No. The multiple intelligences theory of learning, like any other suggested fix for schools, can sometimes be taken to an extreme. I do think multiple intelligences should be actively accessed when students are younger and gradually decreased as students get older, and this is because this type of teaching style does not happen in college. Students need to learn to adapt to different styles of teaching, and I don’t think we prepare students for college otherwise. Now, an emphasis on interdisciplinary curriculum—that I can get behind. Teachers who frequently show the connection between reading and math and science and history and etc. etc. etc. are going a long way to increasing the rigor of their classroom, while also preparing students for the real world and how these skills are used.
6. Emotions and Logic are not Mutually Exclusive. Affective thinking should not be separated from cognitive thinking. To put that in more universal language, our feelings help us learn. This isn’t just a made up notion. Learning is deepest when contains an emotional component. We should be aware of how we feel about what we are learning.
Agree with this, but I think I’m going to need more concrete examples here. This is the kind of fuzzy language which is common in teaching, and which is why people have struggled for so long to define the specific skills which make someone a good teacher. Fuzzy language is problematic because it is interpreted in so many different ways, some good and some bad.
7. Social and Emotional Learning. We also need to teach children the social skills necessary for successful interactions in school and in life. One thing I’ve noticed is that the inability to deal constructively with conflict and emotion interferes with the student’s ability to focus on learning in school. Conflict resolution and the repairing of relationships are skills that should be consistently taught from early ages, and schools are the perfect social environments to teach them. Relatively unstructured times such as recess are the best opportunities for children to learn how to navigate interpersonal conflict. And since cooperative learning has been shown to be more effective than individualistic learning, students need to be taught group learning skills before they are thrown into groups and expected to work together.
I can’t disagree with this. My school has a whole class dedicated to this which students take almost every year, and when it’s taught well, you can see the impact it has. (Key words: when it’s taught well. There was a visible difference in behavior between the 7th grade classes who had a good teacher for this particular class and the ones who had a bad teacher for it.)
8. Get rid of homework. Homework is bad. It stresses out children and their families. Studies show it does not improve academic performance or retention of knowledge. Some adults believe that homework will help teach responsibility. But, we generally think it a bad thing to take our work home with us as adults. We understand that there should be a separation of work and home life. We need time to relax and recharge. Many teachers only give out homework because they are expected to by other adults: administrators and parents. And, those adults expect homework because when they were children they had homework. Even those teachers who know enough to be opposed to homework will generally give it to children to prepare them for… homework! That’s right. You get homework in 5th grade so you’ll get used to it because you are going to have it in 6th grade. It’s a pointless, self-perpetuating system. In my current school, there are students who would be passing their classes – they do well on classwork and tests – but they are failing because they don’t get their homework done. In other words, there is clear evidence that they are learning yet they may have to repeat a grade of school because they aren’t going along with homework oppression. In the end, it’s a form of violence against children. It’s child abuse. Stop it.
This is ridiculous. Homework is a way to extend learning after school hours; it exists because of the same logic behind a longer school day or longer school year. The reason why homework is largely ineffective is because the work assigned is not meaningful. Kids need to learn how to study and read on their own because they’ll be expected to do it in college. They need to develop this work ethic. I think homework is valuable, finally, because of the lessons it teaches kids in personal responsibility and time management.
9. “Our Schools Are Not Enclaves of Totalitarianism.” Those are the wise words of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. And yet, the adults who run many of our schools spend much of their energy trying to control students in meaningless ways. For example, it’s almost universal that kids aren’t allowed to wear hats in school. Why not? Apparently, it was considered rude some time in our culture’s past. But look around – adults wear hats indoors! I’ve seen teachers grab the hats off children who are on their way outside. Kids get yelled at for wearing hats. How can anyone learn in such an oppressive environment that feels like the adults are just waiting for them to make a mistake with arbitrary rules? Educator should also be clear about what the reason is behind their efforts to control children’s behavior. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I trying to control this child for the benefit of the child, of the class, or for my own benefit?” I once shadowed a 5th grade student for a day and counted how often she was told to be quiet by adults. About 20 times per hour hour, she or the whole class was told, in one way or another, to shut up. Imagine being told by people in charge of your life to sit still and shut up every three minutes, all day, every day. Now imagine being a kid, with the energy of a kid, and enduring your days like that.
When people say things like this, it makes me wonder what kind of teaching environment they’re in. My school is fairly strict—airtight uniform policy, no gum, no cell phones, students can get demerits for putting their heads on the desk in class—but because of the structure, we don’t have security guards or school police officers, which is an anomaly in Philadelphia. Most of my students are coming from schools where crime was high, dangerous incidents in the building were high, etc. and I can tell you from personal experience that the smaller things were not being addressed either. It’s the broken windows theory. Kids need, and appreciate, more structure than less. Obviously, this type of strict environment is not necessary everywhere, or even at every age—ideally, I’d like to see us gradually relax some rules with each successive grade—but there’s a reason it happens.
10. Siestas. OK, this one may seem silly at first, but hear me out. Half-way through the school day, kids (and adults) get sleepy. We have our lowest energy about 12 hours from our deepest sleep. When I taught 2nd grade, the kids were always asking me for a nap, but I felt obligated to forge ahead even though I felt like taking a nap, too. There should be a nap period for kids over kindergarten age. Alternatively, some people benefit from exercise, instead of sleep. If you would like to be a part of the North American Siesta Movement, join my Facebook group.
Ha. I don’t disagree with this.
11. Fund Schools Fairly. School funding should be taken out of the property tax base, which is inherently unequal. Every student deserves the same educational resources regardless of where their parents happen to live. For an example of how uneven funding hurts children, see my post about two adjacent high schools in Providence, Rhode Island.
Fund schools fairly—and then monitor schools to make sure the money is getting appropriated wisely. I taught at a public school managed by Edison Schools, Inc.; I had way fewer resources than my friends who taught at non-EMO public schools in the same district, even though we received a few thousand more per student. The charter network for whom I work currently actually receives even less per student than the school district, yet during the years I taught with them, I maybe set foot inside a Staples only few times as I wanted for nothing.
12. What About Teacher Pay? Although teachers are woefully underpaid, I don’t think that increasing teacher compensation will lead to better teaching. Good teachers don’t do it for the money. If anything, adequate pay would attract some people for the wrong reason. Don’t get me wrong – teacher should be paid more, in fact, I think that as long as pay in our society is unequal, teachers deserve more of it than anyone else, except maybe fire fighters. But that’s not an education reform, that’s just a matter of valuing teachers.
Some of these reforms require adopting a new ideology, some mean relinquishing a bit of control, and at least one costs money. It’s difficult for adults to change their ways of being, and people, especially those without children in public school, don’t seem willing to invest more of their own money. It’s always easier to find someone or some group of people to blame for a problem, but the truth is that the problems of education in the United States are structural, and we won’t solve them by focusing on the players instead of how the game is played.
Y’ALL. WE NEED TO PAY TEACHERS MORE. ”Good teachers don’t do it for the money.” This may be true, but in not paying teachers more, we’re scaring away good teachers who do need the money. This is the real world, where teachers often have loans, mouths to feed, mortgages/rent, bills, etc. We need more smart people in the profession, because we need students to learn from the way they think. A teacher with a high vocabulary is going to have a bigger impact on his or her students than one who does not. (Studies are available for that as well.) If you get a 1600 on your SAT, and you know that you can go into engineering and start at 75K right out of college, or be a teacher and start at 35K, which are you generally going to choose? I have a roommate in college who wanted to be a teacher, but his own father—a teacher!—told him not to do it, because of the pay. That roommate is an attorney now, and he earns a healthy salary and is good at what he does, but I imagine he would have been an amazing teacher. And every now and then he gets an urge to make a career change, but, in his words, “it’d be a huge lifestyle change” as well.
Higher earnings will increase the prestige of the job. Pay your damn teachers!