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WARNING: This article could have been twice or five or ten times as long. The fact that I listed only five items reflects not my naivety, but my desire to keep this article under 1500 words and my editor happy. Enjoy!
#1: Back to School Night. Nobody wants to say it so I will. No one really enjoys Back to School Night.
Not the parents who feel obligated because of a vague but powerful notion that “good parents” always attend such events, even when they desperately don’t want to.
Not the teachers who do not look forward to coming back to their classrooms after a long day teaching—especially in the late summer after having already sweated it out for hours on end.
Not the administrators who must organize, execute, and satisfy a long list of to-dos in order to satisfy their districts, their parents, and their teachers.
There was certainly a time and a place for Back to School Night in earlier generations. And even today Back to School Night makes a lot of sense for K-6 students who cannot be counted on to pass on information to their parents about classroom policies, teacher preferences, or the school calendar of events.
But for modern middle and high school students, Back to School Night is unnecessary, and yes, terribly awkward, event for everyone involved. Parents rush from classroom to classroom for two hours on campus they are usually unfamiliar with in order to be exposed to the most basic of presentations about a specific class and teacher.
With the advent of e-mail and apps such as Remind or Bloomz, teachers can engage in more direct and meaningful communication with parents. And for the more adventurous teachers, encourage parents who really want the scoop of what happens in class every day to come to school one day and attend themselves. I have been doing this for years and the parents always seem to enjoy it—especially when they don’t tell their son or daughter they are coming to class.
#2: Summer Vacation. Don’t get me wrong. I love Summer Vacation. I love it a lot. Anyone who loves to travel, read books without feeling guilty about ungraded exams, and stay up late into the evening, would cherish such an extended respite. But the modern variant of summer vacation needs to be reformed for a variety of good reasons.
Vacation time needs to be better spaced out throughout the year.
Having ten to twelve weeks off in a row makes no sense, especially when students themselves will admit they spend it staring at screens hour and hour, day after day, week after week. Gone are the days when American children played outside until sunset, went away to “summer camp” for half the summer, or dutifully engaged in a program of robust summer reading. The Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a survey in 2010 and found that 2,000 children aged 8-18 engaged screens for an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day. Not per week . . . per day! Anyone with the slightest patina of intuition knows that number gets even worse during the summer months.
Summer Vacation was created so children could help their families harvest farms and assist in all the summer activities of an agrarian domestic life. This world is long gone. A revised calendar could be used to extend Winter and Spring breaks during the school year or even give the occasional week off in the middle of October or February.
It could be used to add school days and lessen the gap between the United States and other countries, especially Asian nations, who often have academic years that reach beyond two-hundred days.
#3: Funding Schools Through Property Taxes: The United States is the only country in the industrialized world in which our poorest students receive fewer public resources than our most affluent students. It makes absolutely no sense that students with the most socioeconomic disadvantages (and who frequently lack other elements of social capital fundamental to academic achievement and growth such as quality health care, safe homes, stable family life) are allotted the least from our public coffers.
If you want a culprit it’s this: property taxes. In the United States, school funding is received from a variety of sources—45% state, 45% local, and 10% federal. While some states such as California and Illinois attempt to remedy these deficiencies by bolstering state monies, the end result is still one of socio-economic segregation. A powerful visual representation of this problem was demonstrated by NPR in 2016 who created maps of the disparity between geographic areas. In my home state of California, which suffers from high levels of income inequality, the disparity is especially intense.
Education has traditionally been the responsibility of local and state governments. The very design of our Constitution which is silent about any individual right to education ensures that educational systems—the curriculum, teacher requirements, funding levels—are going to be monumentally different from state to state. And in many regards, localism in education makes a lot of sense. Alaska suffers from transportation issues that a district in Los Angeles would never have to consider.
But as wealth and poverty become more stratified in American society, anchoring funding sources in local property bases will only serve to further inequality and engender resentment. Think about the insanity of the present situation: the surest path out of poverty and economic strife is a high-quality education and yet the resources needed to bolster this noble project of social mobility is denied to those who are most needing of it.
The achievement gap between rich and poor is widening. While I am conservative enough to acknowledge that funding is never the panacea my liberal friends argue it is, more resources for our most at-risk students is not just a moral imperative but makes practical sense in an era of increasing polarization.
#4: Waiting for Technology to Save Us: Technology is great. It makes educators more efficient in grading. It imbues us with more pedagogic tools. It allows us to communicate with parents and the broader community in a more robust and transparent fashion. But what it will never do—what it cannot do—is to solve the biggest problems in education.
Teacher anxiety and stress are on the rise. Shortages are reaching pandemic levels. The search engine Yahoo even has a subcategory of articles entitled, “Teachers in Crisis.” Fewer modern teachers recommend a teaching career to their own children and students. Paul Barton of ETA (Educational Testing Service) has argued that differing levels of school proficiency can be distilled down to five key factors: levels of absenteeism, hours watching television, amount of pages required to be read for homework purposes, volume and quality of reading materials in the home, and the presence of two parents in the household. Not one of these variables can be bolstered by the latest classroom app, Google Classroom upgrade, or YouTube educational videos.
Foreign exchange students who come to America always seem surprised by two obsessions prominently on display in American schools: sports and technology. There is, in fact, little evidence that more access to the latest technological fad does much to improve academic outcomes. We should use technology when and where it is appropriate. But let’s stop pretending it will empower us to jump any of the highest hurdles in our profession.
#5: Any Reform Without Teacher Input: I am sure policy-makers mean well when they legislate diktats that require sudden course changes in the functioning of everyday American classrooms. I am sure billionaires also mean well when they open charter schools and fund massive amounts of educational research or fund school voucher propositions during various state elections.
But running an education system is not akin to running a business; and even if it were, don’t most successful businessmen and women seek input from their own employees before instituting sweeping changes in policy or practice?
Can’t everyone agree that no matter how majestic your title may be, no matter how much power you have over an education budget or the credentialing process, and no matter how many zeroes are in your bank account, setting educational policy without consulting the everyday classroom teacher and school administration is a bad idea?
Sadly, we keep making this mistake. Teachers are often not at the table, not “in the room where it happens,” to quote the Broadway play Hamilton. If teachers are exhausted by the endless waves of reform it is because many reforms are hastily instituted, spurred on by the “latest research.” However, in most cases, new policies and educational whims suffer from defects that classroom teachers could have identified early on, long before it was implemented. Instead, we ride an endless carousel of reform, reforming the reform, and then abandoning the reform altogether in favor of something that worked all along.