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Fixing Education: An Insider’s Perspective

There are a lot of problems in public education today. There are a host of news stories about budgetary concerns, failing schools, test pressures, and other ills plaguing our nation’s schools. For too long the answer has been one extreme or another: more money, or cut funding. We’ve got to get creative in our approach to fixing the problems; rehashing the same old debate year after year and offering the same old solutions only delays the inevitable. If we are going to change education in this country (and in my own State of Texas), we’ve got to change education.

Being an “insider” interested in changing the status quo gives me a unique perspective: I don’t think my job is sacrosanct, nor do I think educators are over- or under-paid. I think the problems (and solutions) go beyond money (or testing, or “kids these days”) or any of the other problems and solutions offered up. We must fundamentally change the way we approach education in this country if we want to keep up with the world as it exists. We are educating a 21st century generation with a 19th century educational model. That will not work, and we can see its failure beginning to manifest itself in “kids these days.” Increasing dropout rates, increasing unemployment and unemployability, and a decrease in the general interest and drive for education point to the urgency we face in dealing with the problems in substantive ways.

What follows are ideas that should at least be considered, not simply dismissed out-of-hand because they’re too drastic or foreign. We face an increasingly competitive global economy, and resting on our laurels will not guarantee future success. To date, the United States has been the fastest growing and strongest economy in history, but global competitors are on the verge of unseating us. In order to avoid something as potentially catastrophic as a China-dominated world economy, we must think beyond is comfortable and begin thinking practically.

Performance-based pay
Human beings, by our nature, are incentive-driven creatures. Even those people who oppose performance-based pay (unions, namely), are driven by incentives to promote progress for their particular group; we see it in the fight for better health benefits, better retirement packages, better pay grades–performance-based pay opponents want bonuses for their work, yet work to deny bonuses (or termination) based on performance. This is going to kill our educational system. Teachers who fail at their job should not be teaching–the generations of kids they fail pay the price, not just the taxpayers whose money is wasted. What possible incentive does a bad teacher have to improve her methods if she knows she will be safe in her job as long as she doesn’t cuss out a kid or have a sexual relationship with a student? Why should a teacher implement new practices if he knows his union will prevent him from losing any pay on his paycheck? Too often teachers can mail-it-in and know that they will suffer no negative consequences.

There are innumerable examples supporting the idea that incentives drive success. If a teacher knew she would get a $5000 bonus with a 100% passing rate on a state exam, she’d likely dedicate more time reviewing her work and practices to make sure what she is doing is working. We are naturally reward-driven, and look to ensure our own well-being. If I knew my job was in jeopardy after 3 years of consecutive state-level exam failures, I’d start to sweat and seek help.

State-level assessments are necessary, as well, because the potential for grade inflation is too apparent to ignore. Ideally, the teachers wouldn’t have to “teach to the test,” because the curriculum would be designed in such a way that the assessment tests on-level knowledge, based on standards devised by a committee comprised of teachers and former educators. Such assessments would also give a neutral and objective evaluation of teachers upon which their bonuses (or even their pay grade or job) are based.

Private enterprises ensure maximum productive capability and quality when they reward those employees who perform above expectations and remove those employees who routinely drag down quality and speed. If such a system is good enough for our cars, why not for our kids?

School calendar adjustment
Our public education system developed in a time when children were needed for harvesting crops in our largely-agrarian society. That system shifted as jobs and population migrated to cities, with the age of Industrialization; there were also fears of stuffing kids into hot and cramped classrooms during the summer (plus, there was a desire to have a standard calendar to ensure a seamless transition from grade to grade, so ALL kids needed to start and stop at the same time).

Today, such concerns are largely baseless. We have air conditioning. We have better ventilation. We have distance-learning capabilities. We have standardized grades and expectations. We also have no reasonable explanation for giving schoolkids three months off in a row, and then overloading them with weeks-without-end of schooling. It’s also detrimental to teachers to have such long stretches between meaningful rest periods. It’s a systemic problem when teachers are counting down to the next break and kids are burned out by the middle of the second semester. We also have an economic system in which parents are generally only able to take one or two weeks off. Such a system is ripe for problems, both for families and for society as a whole.

We need an “ebb-and-flow” approach to the school year. It should begin with the standard calendar in January, and have periods where school is in session for several weeks, then have a few weeks off. Months in a row of free time are unnecessary, as well as unproductive. If we went to school for eight weeks, from the beginning of January until the end of February, we could then have two weeks off at the beginning of March (the traditional Spring Break time); we’d then go to school through the remainder of March until the end of May (again, the traditional ending point of school). This would comprise one semester of two quarters. We’d resume in mid-June (after two weeks off) until the end of August, with two more weeks off into mid-September; this is the third quarter. The final quarter would be from mid-September until the third week of November, with a week off for Thanksgiving. Three weeks back after that break would give us time for finals and the end of the year process, at which point we’d have a week off for Christmas (give or take, depending on the calendar). The school year would be over, and January would bring in the new school year.

We’d have roughly the same amount of classroom time (or slightly more, depending on how the calendar is structured and whether or not there are incidental days off–Columbus day, Presidents Day, etc), and people wouldn’t be nearly so burnt out. Students would retain information better, because they wouldn’t have to remember lessons and units after two weeks off (provided districts structure pacing appropriately). Students and teachers would be more refreshed and “with it,” since a break is only a few weeks away from any point in the quarter or semester. Meaningful rest would be achieved for teachers (since I’ve found that after a month off, teachers are often restless and antsy and ready to do something).

Along with the school calendar is the notion that funding should be tied to attendance; in other words, time spent in school is time well spent. Making schools accountable by saying that students have X-number of days they must be in class, with X-number of hours receiving instruction, and basing funding off attendance is troublesome, because it simply means we have kids in seats; it doesn’t guarantee that what they are doing in those seats is worthwhile. This is where the next item will be a powerful solution.

Test-based Educational Path
I teach history; I really didn’t need algebra, neither in high school nor college. I’ve never used the quadratic equation outside the hallowed halls of my alma mater. I’m not being obtuse about the analytical quality of the field, nor of the discipline required to learn math. I’m simply saying, I didn’t need it, and haven’t ever needed it since. Likewise, algebra teachers really didn’t need history. It didn’t further their understanding of their field (unless it incidentally taught them how particular formulas or theorems developed). History is for those who need to do research, or historical inquiry, or civic-minded professions. Algebra teachers and other mathematicians don’t need history. Why, then, do we have to take such courses? To create “well-rounded” students? I’ll freely admit: I’m not well-rounded, because I still can’t do algebra. I didn’t gain anything from it, except excessive stress.

We should have an educational system aimed at building upon the strengths of our students, rather than spreading them out across a wide range of studies so that they are competent at some and masters of none. We need to target education based on their strengths and interests, not on arbitrary “readin’, ‘ritin’, ‘n’ ‘rithmatic” expectations. Teachers are exhorted to create “college-ready” students, but that ignores two glaring realities.
First, not every student is going to graduate and go to college. Some have no desire to get a college degree (and some won’t even graduate high school). Those who want to go to college should be encouraged and supported, but we can’t demean the college achievement by opening wide the gates and essentially forcing into it a bunch of kids who really don’t want or need it, and who will likely end up dropping out any way, nor can we force kids to do something which is contrary to their life goals. Some students are content to become self-employed, or work with family businesses, or go into fields which require technical training not a college degrees.
Second, when students arrive at college, they are presented with an almost-frighteningly broad assortment of classes from which to choose; their educational path and future is in their hands. We should be training them early on to make mature and informed choices and to remain dedicated and disciplined in pursuit of a goal.

The 9th and 10th grade year should provide the foundational coursework that fulfill the “readin’, ‘ritin’, ‘n’ ‘rithmatic” needs. History, math, reading, languages, and other core subjects should be taught at this level. Students should then take a test at the end of their 10th grade year to see what their educational path should be. The test should discern their strengths and weaknesses and recommend an educational plan for them (similar to the ASVAB). The parents and student can then decide which coursework plan would best suit the child. The 11th and 12th grade years would be dedicated to building upon the knowledge and skills at which that student is most adept and in which the student is most interested. The more formative (and mature) years will, therefore, be dedicated to classes in which the student is interested and most successful, and they will also provide the job-based skills needed for success. We can’t be inflexible, because some students will realize that they hate the field they’ve chosen and want to pick another course. This needs to be something addressed with credit recovery classes, to catch them up to speed in another area, with an understanding that they can only make such a change once.

This will solve multiple problems, among which is apathy. I hated algebra, and had no interest in it, so I did poorly at it. If I knew I only needed to get through algebra and geometry (9th and 10th grade, for instance), and then my junior and senior year were math-free, I’d have had a better attitude. As it was, I struggled through 3 ½ years of math before finally giving up and becoming an unofficial “teacher’s aide.” Beyond the emotional benefits, however, are the tangible economic benefits that will come with having more specifically qualified and well-trained students entering the job market as workers. This leads to my next point.

Corporate Sponsorship and Co-op Educational Programs
The true purpose of society providing education to its progeny (ignoring the metaphysical and intangible “making better people” side of it) is to create functional members of society. “Functional” means, in most cases, employed and tax-paying citizens. Society needs to ensure that we have competent and well-trained people entering the job market so that the economy as a whole will grow; better workers means better products and services, better products and services means better pay for the workers, better pay means more consumption and taxes, and the growth continues. We should recognize education for its primary purpose: making workers. I’m not saying we should churn out unthinking, uncreative automatons; rather, I’m saying we should mold people who are equipped to work, thus alleviating their stress (such as the stress caused by learning new job and life skills), and also alleviating society’s burdens in caring for those who fail (since more people would be able to provide for themselves). Since we are trying to turn out workers, we should take their future employment into consideration in their present education.

We should open the doors of our schools to corporate sponsorship, but not in the way that it sounds; I’m not saying we should have giant Coca-Cola banners above lockers (though I don’t particularly care if we do) or Gatorade vending machines in locker rooms. What I propose is that we open classrooms to “corporate sponsors” who will help design a curriculum for 11th and 12th graders, so that those companies are contributing funds and materials to the educational system, but they are also guaranteed a return on their investments. So, instead of Gatorade in the locker rooms, the NFL could sponsor an athletics program, and tailor the instruction and program so that the graduates of that high school program are equipped to work for the NFL as trainers and coaches and the like. Microsoft could sponsor a wing at a school and outfit it with new computers and software, and help design a curriculum to guarantee its money and products are well used, and then students who graduate from the program are welcomed at Microsoft as trained interns. The possibilities are limitless–plumbing and construction, automotive and banking, food service and medical professions.

Students would be chosen via application after meeting criteria the corporate sponsor sets. The curriculum would be determined by the district (for state testing purposes) in conjunction with the sponsor (for employment purposes). The 11th graders would take background courses to prepare them for job functions as related to the sponsor; 12th graders would be given co-op job placements, where they go to school for the first part of the day and finish the day at the sponsor company’s facilities. I envision some sort of exclusivity agreement, wherein the student commits to, say, a two-year minimum stint with the company after graduation, and in return the company provides financial assistance for college or technical school. The company benefits because they get to have a free intern, and if the student stays with the company beyond the agreed term, they gain a competent and well-trained employee; the student benefits because they have immediate job-skills training in addition to scholarship assistance–they will be immediately marketable to future employers.

Teachers would be hired and paid by the corporate sponsor (or in conjunction with the school district), and would be evaluated based on criteria the sponsor sets. Students and teachers alike would remain in the program as long as they meet minimum requirements for achievement, and anyone not meeting the grade would be placed in the regular school setting (or fired).

Corporate sponsorship of education solves several problems. Funding woes would be ameliorated, because companies would be footing the bill for industry-specific education. Accountability (and thus achievement) would be attained by setting and maintaining standards, and removing from the programs anyone who fails to meet the standards (from students up to administrators). Competent and dedicated workers are guaranteed, since people who complete the program pledge to work for the sponsor for a period of time, and they will be more likely to maintain employment once the contracted term is finished. It also ensures a rigorous course load that prepares students for the realities of the world after school. In all cases, students are receiving more than an education, they are receiving life-training.  With curriculum designed to match realistic expectations, overall student achievement will rise.  This leads to the next point.

Teacher-created Education Policies
Too often, politicians and “average citizens” are elected to high office and make decisions which affect the educational policies and expectations for the state. These decisions are not always guided by the best classroom practices, or tried-and-true successes. Just as there should be civic exams for state and federal officeholders (which is a separate essay), members of state boards of education should be held to the same standards to which educators are held. I had to get a four-year degree and a teaching certificate to get my own classroom. If I want a seat on the state board of education, I simply have to file for election and get myself elected; if I wanted to control funding or educational standards, I could be elected to the statehouse and have direct influence over education in the state. This has got to be rectified.

If we want to improve standards and outcomes, we should start at the top. Professional educators should be responsible for determining how education operates in the state. We wouldn’t ask gardeners to plot battle strategies, nor zookeepers to run banks; why, then, do we let politicians and other elected officials make decisions affecting education? If we expect teachers and students to meet high standards, we should have high standards for those people who set the standards.

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These ideas would require major changes for everyone involved–the State, the schools, the teachers, the parents, and the children. Given the gravity of the situation, however, such changes must be considered–or alternatives–if we are to maintain a competitive edge in the world today. Beyond economic competitiveness, we should agitate towards drastic changes so that we can make sure our kids, and future generations, are getting the best educational opportunities possible. Trying to educate kids of the 21st century with a system from the 19th will not work.

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