- Seven Reforms Needed in Education - January 10, 2017
- Stop Censoring Our Classrooms - March 7, 2016
- Preparing for Parent-Teacher Conferences - October 16, 2015
- My Experience with TNCore - the Tennessee State Standards - September 15, 2015
- Tips for Choosing a Novel to Study - June 9, 2015
- Choosing the Right High School Reading Intervention Program - April 30, 2015
- Four Things Teachers Should Try Before Removing a Student - April 6, 2015
- Dear 'Bad Students': Prove Us Wrong - March 12, 2015
- Improving Education: Response to Joel Klein - February 26, 2015
- Writing Hacks for Grades 9-12 - February 12, 2015
I love what I do. I love where I work. I love with whom I work. I feel like I am given the space I need to do my job, and I believe my admins are sincere whenever they offer to help and listen to any concerns I have. However, I feel like so much more can be done to improve public education overall. Therefore, I propose significant changes in public education for 2017. These ideas are based on educational policies found in other countries, such as Finland, Japan, and France, where students perform among the highest on standardized tests. What follows are reforms that I wish our policymakers would adopt when considering changes to public education.
1. Decrease the Number of Standardized Tests
Notice I suggest fewer standardized tests as opposed to no standardized tests. Standardized tests do have their place in education, but like with anything else, too much is overkill. Perhaps student progress can be tracked every 3 years as opposed to every year. This would save many states a great deal of money and students a great deal of stress. Furthermore, standardized tests should only be used to track student progress, not to indicate teacher accountability. There are other, more effective means to measure a teacher’s worth, such as observations, lesson plan reviews, and student surveys.
2. Give Teachers More Say in Policy
In my ideal world, teacher leaders would work alongside school board members so that both teachers and community members had a say in local policies. Only people with experience in the public classroom as well as with school administration could become superintendents (or the district equivalent), and this would hold true for state and federal departments of education. Any lawmaker who wanted to write policies that affected public education would have to visit a variety of classrooms and meet with a variety of teachers and students.
3. Give Teachers More Classroom Autonomy
Most educational standards are written with skills in mind as opposed to materials. As such, the types of materials teachers can use in classroom instruction are nearly endless. Unfortunately, many districts leave choosing materials in the hands of anyone but the teachers. Sometimes school boards listen to teacher input but ultimately have the final say on what can be put in the classrooms. Other times textbook companies come in offering materials exclusively aligned to our state tests. Parents come in at random and challenge the material. While I do agree parents should reserve the right to question material, the school and district leaders should refrain from kneejerk reactions just for the sake of appeasement. They should listen to their teachers’ justification of using certain material as objectively as possible. In most situations, it is not that the material being used is necessarily bad, it is just offensive to the parent for personal reasons. Compromises can be made in the form of alternative assignments as opposed to district-wide changes in such situations. For instance, a school system need not ban all students from reading a certain novel when one student can just be given a different novel to read instead. Other times, no changes need to be made at all. Some parents complain about material due to misunderstandings.
4. Improve Teacher Training Programs
While teacher training programs have come a long way in the past decade, they still leave much to be desired. Up and coming teachers would benefit from more case studies where real teachers pose actual situations and problems they have come across. New teachers need to understand that while teachers from Freedom Writers and similar movies are ideal educators, they are not always realistic. Additionally, teacher programs should never lump together different grade levels; while elementary, middle school and high school classrooms do have some similarities, the differences are far too great to throw everyone together. For example, one of my classroom management classes did put all education majors together, and most of the strategies we taught were aimed at younger students, favoring the elementary education majors. (Please understand, I love my elementary education peers and I enjoyed learning alongside them.) Whenever middle school and high school student-teachers asked how to apply the strategies to older students, we were told we could “easily” adapt it with no guidance on how to do so, or we were told that older kids like stickers, too. Stickers hold a special place in my heart, but they alone will not prepare us for the unique challenges in older classrooms. (Stickers won’t solve all the problems elementary teachers will encounter, either.) Younger and older students are different developmentally, and elementary and secondary teachers find themselves in different classroom setups.
5. Offer Different Curriculum for Different Children
In some countries, such as France, pupils are set on two different tracks by the time they enter our equivalent of high school grades. Based on their performance, they are either prepared for college or they are prepared for a more technical track. While American schools do allow students to choose career clusters, most of the standards they adopt are one-size fit. In other words, students whose aptitude resides in technical or vocational careers and who have no desire to attend traditional college must sit in the same core classes with their college-bound peers. They must learn the material best suited for college-bound students and take the same standardized tests. This is all thanks to NCLB and may continue under ESSA (time will only tell). While the idea that every child should be college and career ready is good in theory, it simply is not practical. This is not to say that anyone receives a subpar education while their counterparts receive superb education; rather, this is to argue that different people have different needs. Students who wish to attend a technical or vocational college still need core classes, but they do not need to learn the same material presented in a college prep class. They also should not take the same standardized tests, for that matter.
If I had my way, though, I would allow students on the technical path to take college prep core classes in lieu of technical core classes and students on the college-bound path to take vocational classes as electives. And everyone would have to take one or two life skills classes. (Some states require this already, for the record.)
6. Offer Teachers Better Pay
Too many teachers work second jobs just to make ends meet, which is ridiculous when you consider that teaching is a profession. No one goes into teaching to become a millionaire, but no one should expect teachers to work so much for so little pay. I am in favor of those hybrid paygrades that grant employees a salary with the possibility for overtime whenever educators work beyond contracted hours. This would require school systems to define clear-cut hours that teachers are expected to work as well as a way for teachers to honestly document how many hours they truly work whenever they have to stay late or arrive early to finish their duties. Opponents might fear that some teachers would take advantage of this and milk the clock, but there are two things to consider: first, most teachers do not enjoy staying late into the evening, and second if other employers can figure out how to hold employees accountable, I am certain we could adopt a similar method in education. Furthermore, school leaders would prioritize tasks that teachers should do, hopefully lending more time to instructional planning and less time to bureaucratic duties in order to ensure that teachers do not exceed their allotted hours. This leads me to tip #7…
7. Shorten Instructional Time and Lengthen Planning Time
This is not to say that planning should outweigh teaching time; rather, this is to assert that some time should be taken from teaching to be put into the planning. Teachers from Finland and Japan have more planning time and produce better results in the classroom. This is because their educational leaders understand that there is far more to teaching than actual teaching. Like with other professions, planning and preparation are required behind the scenes in order for teachers to execute successful lessons. These duties include creating a lesson (or adapting a preexisting one to meet current students’ needs), finding or creating materials (e.g. researching best practices, gathering supplies, creating a master copy, making copies of the master copy, uploading a resource on the teacher website, etc.), grading papers, assessing students’ progress to determine the next steps in instruction, providing useful feedback, and so on. And then there are the other duties teachers are expected to perform, including administrator assignments, gathering and reporting data, club/sport/other extracurricular activities that teachers are expected to sponsor (sometimes without pay), communicating with parents, and collaborating with peers. Nations that produce better results recognize the time non-instructional tasks require and also accept that these tasks are essential for the end product: the actual teaching itself.