Real Education Reform
I am an opponent of corporatist, millionaire- and billionaire-backed Education Reform, but I am no supporter of the status quo. I want to see radical change in our public education system, just not the changes that the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, or the WalMart heirs support. I support changes that directly address the failures in the system and are proven effective.
Culturally relevant curricula. We have a multi-cultural society, but our curricula is overwhelmingly dominated by European culture in world view, content, epistemology, and norms. When the majority of our students bring a heritage culture from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, this monolithic focus on a European view makes no sense at all. Think of this - we all learned about the battle of Marathon and the battle of Thermopylae and how a small number of Greeks defeated the huge Persian Empire. But if the Persian Empire was the dominant force in the Western world at the time (and they were - Greece was a tiny collection of disorganized city-states on the western fringe of the known world, not the center of it) why don't we know anything about them? And what was happening in China, India, the Americas, and Africa at the same time, 490 BC to 480 BC? Anyone? Anyone? Culturally relevant curricula speaks directly to student motivation.
Culturally competent staff and behavior norms. People should be at least familiar with these ideas from the Mann building protest and the investigations into disproportionate discipline, but I'll re-state it here in blunt language. Our schools are dominated by middle-class, college-educated White women and the school culture is a projection of their culture and perspective. The less students reflect that frame of reference - by not being middle-class, not having post-secondary education in their background, not being White or not being women - the greater the mis-match between the school culture and the student's culture. This leads to all kinds of cross-cultural misunderstandings due to differences in expectations, etiquette, and social norms. But since the power is all on one side, all of the consequences of those natural misunderstandings fall on the students. This leads to disproportionate discipline rates (and referral to special education) for students living in poverty, non-White students, and boys. And for non-White boys living in poverty the rates are off the charts. They aren't bad kids, they just work off a different set of rules. Of course the students need to learn the norms and the culture of the school, but shouldn't those norms and culture reflect the students as well as the staff? And shouldn't EVERYONE - students and staff - get some explicit instruction in cross-cultural competency? This speaks directly to motivation and, to the extent that suspended and expelled students aren't in school, support.
A Mandate to Do What It Takes. There are these "no excuses" schools that Education Reform folks love to talk about. In these schools the teachers take heroic action to do whatever it takes for the students to succeed. This can range from the small (buy the student an alarm clock so he can wake up on time to get to school) to the large (laptop or tablet computers for all students!) to the really big (healthcare and counseling for students). Right now, however, teachers and staff don't have either the license or the budget for this sort of thing. So let's grant them the license and the budget.
So, just to make it perfectly clear, I will list a number of education reforms that I absolutely support. These reforms address the fundamental flaws in our education system. And what are those flaws?
Our schools, here in Seattle and across the country, do a great job of educating students who come to them prepared, supported, and motivated. They always have. However, our schools, here in Seattle and across the country, do a dreadful job of educating students who arrive at school without preparation, support, or motivation. They always have. The solution, to me, is obvious: We - as a society - must provide the required preparation, support, and motivation when they are missing.
- Universal access to high-quality pre-school. Studies show that half of the academic achievement gap is present on the first day of kindergarten. By assuring every child access to high quality pre-school we can directly address students' need for preparation. When I was a child public school started in the first grade. Kindergarten was available in private nursery schools only. Now Kindergarten is provided by the public schools. Let's push that back one more year and make Pre-K available in our public schools. That's going to not only require more money for an additional year of education, but it will require school construction as well to provide about 8% more classrooms to hold the additional students.
- Extended school day. Kids who are behind need time on task to catch up. So let's offer supported study before and after school. Kids will get a stable, supported time and space to study, plus breakfast in the morning and a snack in the afternoon. Let's work to intentionally create lots of educational community events at the school in the evenings to engage the students' families and the broader community in the education of our children. Help families to learn how to support their children's education at home. This extension will directly address students' level of support and the family and community engagement will improve motivation. Let's not hesitate to extend the school day to give elementary schoolchildren more directed instructional time and to allow our middle and high school students to take more classes. Yes, this will mean paying teachers more - for more work - and reducing class sizes as well to keep their out-of-class workload manageable as well. What? Did you think it would be free?
- Extended school year. We have a short school year and there is no good reason for it. The academic achievement gap contracts during the school year and expands over the summer. Children do not need the summer off to bring in crops. Other industrialized countries like ours have longer school years. We can add another 20 days (four weeks) for a total of 200 days by eliminating the pointless mid-winter break and by shortening the summer break by three weeks. This would put us in a four-way tie for number ten on the chart shown. This would directly improve preparation, support, and, I believe, motivation. Of course teachers would be paid more for the additional work days. It also means that they could actually get through the curriculum. It might even mean that students could strive for mastery of the materials instead of just proficiency with them. They might only achieve proficiency but that's better than the familiarity which is all that many can now acquire.
- Teachers as coaches. Teachers are not needed as dispensers of information. I don't know if they ever were, but certainly not in an age with Google. Teachers training and the general understanding of the teacher role should shift to more like a coaching role. They should teach skills, provide opportunity for skills practice, and, more than anything else, motivate. I have come to believe that the primary determinant of a student's academic achievement is that student's personal motivation. There is no school so bad that a motivated student cannot wrestle an education away from it. Nor is there any school so good that it can force an education onto an unmotivated student. Lots of students get that motivation at home, but a lot don't. Teachers - and all school staff - should keep that motivational role at the front of their minds at all times. Teachers (and all school staff) should be trained to motivate and they should be evaluated on their motivational skills. It should be every one's primary focus.
And what motivates people to do cognitive work like learning? Three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Please read Daniel Pink's book Drive - or at least watch this video - for a more expansive discussion.
- Motivational Reform: Autonomy. Students today get almost no autonomy at all. Outside of Montessori programs or The NOVA Project, student work is closely directed. They don't get to decide what to study, how long to study it, how to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, the pace of their work, or even when they can go to the bathroom. Students should be allowed more autonomy to improve their motivation to learn. Project-based learning can provide some of this. Montessori-style instructional strategies can provide some of this. More than anything else, teachers need to offer students more autonomy - as is developmentally appropriate and without giving students enough rope to hang themselves. This autonomy should come with some skill building on self-management and time management. Wouldn't those be wonderful life skills to teach our children?
- Motivational Reform: Mastery. Near the top of the list of "Things that are Wrong with CPM II" is the way that the lessons come in modular workbooks. Once the teacher says it's time to move from lesson four to lesson five, the lesson four workbooks go away and are never seen again. Students with a continuing interest in lesson four and not able to pursue that interest. They aren't allowed to stay with a topic for as long as they want. They are barely allotted enough time to achieve proficiency and they are not permitted additional time to pursue mastery. Many of them have to abandon the subject after only reaching familiarity. Students should be allowed to pursue mastery of topics that interest them. They should be allowed to continue learning. What kind of educational institution tells students "Stop learning about that! We're learning about something else now." This shift would, of course, play holy hell with vertical and horizontal articulation, but I have never seen their virtue anyway. This additional work can be pursued during the before- or after-school supported study time.
- Motivational Reform: Purpose. Students who come to school motivated are usually motivated by their families. Some cultures put an extraordinarily high value on education and children from those cultures are motivated to do well in school by those values. We are a multi-cultural society. Not only are many cultures represented in our society, but we are - each of us - multi-cultural. We have a home culture, a work culture, one or more heritage cultures, a faith culture, plus the culture of our self-selected tribes based on our hobbies. We behave differently in different contexts and among different sets of people. Each of these is a culture with their own norms, etiquette, language, and values. Schools can foster an institutional culture that values education and the life of the mind. Schools can be a place where the heroes are thinkers, scientists, artists, writers, and leaders instead of athletes and those celebrities who are mysteriously famous for being famous.
This isn't a complete and comprehensive list - I don't want to write a book about this - but it does show that I, and other public school activists without corporate funding are not supporters of the status quo nor are we nay-sayers who simply oppose everything that comes from "the other side". I hope that you'll notice that all of these reforms touch students directly. We're not going to fix things for students by changing the ownership or governance of schools or in the teachers' contract. The changes have to come in the classrooms for them to impact the students. These are real reforms that will bring real solutions to the real problems that are causing under-performance in our schools. Not giving more hire/fire authority to the un-accountable principals. Not shuffling the order of teacher lay-offs. Not breaking the teachers' unions. Not de-professionalizing teachers or teaching.