The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

A New Blueprint for School Reform

on September 22, 2015

Having complained long and loud about the misguided school reform schemes that rule the day, I think it’s time for me to step up and offer my own ideas for making schools work better. Be warned that my proposals are not only unorthodox, but also teacher-biased, and cheap. Well, at least cheaper than the test-drenched plans now in place.


My version of school reform is based on two premises: (1) poverty and its problems are the major causes of students’ poor academic performance (2) the principals and teachers who live their professional lives in schools are those best qualified to make decisions for schools and to implement them.

Here’s my plan!

Convert schools in high poverty areas to full-time community centers.

By moving as many community services as possible into school buildings and making them available in the evenings and on weekends year round, schools could provide necessary social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and add recreational and self-improvement activities now in short supply.

In restructuring building use the only adjustment to the daytime program I suggest would be the addition of basic health and dental care services for students. During evening and weekend hours, however, libraries, gyms and computer labs would be open to adults and children, offering a variety of  clubs, arts classes, and sports. In addition, inexpensive and nutritious family meals would be available in the school lunchroom,  supported by local charities and food banks. Finally, local residents should be encouraged to hold citizen forums that would identify and organize movements for better conditions and more services in the community.

Turn over the management of high-poverty schools to professional educators.

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into struggling schools by offering them incentives of autonomy, professional advancement, and higher salaries. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal, chosen by the school staff and parents, schools would be empowered to create their own structures, including a principal’s cabinet and grade level instructional teams. Within each team, roles would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, experience, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities. Those who take on new responsibilities should be given additional planning time during the school day, and their accomplishments should count toward future salary increases.

Provide poor children with the background knowledge and support they may have missed at home and in their community.

What makes school difficult for most poor children is not lack of ability but meagerness of social, cultural and literary experiences. What many have missed out on is being read to, having substantive conversations with adults, visiting museums, parks, forests, and beaches, and being members of an educated community. To learn academic content and skills successfully, poor children need a school environment that is not only welcoming and supportive, but also rich in books, hands-on activities, cooperative learning, and exposure to the world outside their home community. As far as economically possible, schools should bring back field trips, music and drama performances by local groups, and summer camp experiences.

Cut reliance on expensive commercial materials for students while increasing teachers’ professional development opportunities to increase their expertise.

Rather than depending on slick commercial programs and their disposable and short-lived materials (i.e. workbooks and textbooks), schools would do better to invest in high quality literature and non fiction linked to the curriculum,  improved technology, and basic reference books for students.   At the same time, they could purchase a few copies of new textbooks for teachers to peruse.  Also, rather than paying for professional development sessions provided by outside experts, school districts  would help teachers more by purchasing school subscriptions to professional books and journals of their choosing, and offering rewards to outstanding teachers of paid tuition for self-selected university courses.

Reduce the number of standardized tests and remove the time devoted to test preparation

Not only is standardized testing extremely expensive, it also allows tested subjects to crowd out other subjects, and test preparation to become almost a subject in itself. Furthermore, tests influence teaching style, making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice format. Both students and schools would be better served if such tests were given only at a few grade levels  and classroom teachers wrote their own yearly tests based on the school curriculum.

Evaluate teachers on their own performance, not those of students

Because too many factors beyond a teacher’s control affect students’ test scores, a teacher’s performance should not be judged on those scores.  What students learn comes as much from home and neighborhood,  the state of their health,  and personal interactions as from classroom instruction.  Moreover, each student makes daily choices about what to work hard at, what to give lip service to, and what to ignore completely.

Although principals’ views of their teachers’ competence are not perfect, when carefully developed over time they are the best we can get.  Colleagues may be good judges of teacher performance, but they are hampered by their personal relationships with other teachers. Outside evaluators, however well trained and experienced, cannot make good judgements based on single classroom visits.   A good principal does much more than formal classroom observations. He or she sees a teacher in the library helping students with research, notices how often some teachers volunteer to do something extra for the school, sees a teacher eating lunch at her desk while she reads student essays, or catches another teacher after school meeting with a worried parent.  More than that, good principals meet informally with each teacher from time to time to discuss what they have seen, encourage, and suggest new avenues to explore.

Offer early retirement to burned-out teachers and incentives for ineffective younger teachers to resign or transfer to non-teaching positions.

At present, removing an unsuccessful teacher is a long and expensive process. But the problem is not teacher tenure. It is the lack of evidence of failure that makes attempting to remove a teacher look arbitrary or vengeful. The first step in any school district is to insure systematic evaluations of all teachers with prompt feedback and plans of assistance. Ultimately, any teacher marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, suggestions of alternative careers, and a dignified resignation process. Older teachers who have become worn out should be offered monetary incentives to retire early.  The school district would benefit by having the opportunity to hire new teachers at much lower salaries.

Although I think I could add more change proposals to my list, these are the basics–and my list is long enough. I chose to highlight ideas that run counter to much of what is being done in the name of school reform today. Since I never know whether to laugh or cry when pundits, state legislatures, and policy makers call for more testing, standardization, charter schools, academic rigor, ending teacher tenure, and implementing merit pay, I stuck to describing the major features of the good schools I have known and the great ones I still dream about.

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8 responses to “A New Blueprint for School Reform

  1. Priscilla Gutierrez says:

    That’s a pretty terrific list there, Joanne. Two things I would add:

    1. Student Involved Assessment. Education continues to be something done to students instead of with them. We should be utilizing assessment FOR learning, as well as assessment OF learning. Students need to have a handle of where they are at, in terms of strengths to build on as well as areas for further development; a clear understanding of where they need to go, and with teacher support, develop a plan to get there.
    2. Project-based, Integrated Learning Experiences. So much of curricula hawked to schools teaches STEM subjects from a book and not much else. Students need active, enriching, hands-on learning that facilitates application and reflection of skills, knowledge and understanding across the multiple domains of learning. Knowing is not the same as understanding. Much of what students are subjected to in the name of rigor leaves them stranded at the knowledge level with no opportunities to expand to other domains.

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  2. TheRealMom says:

    Yes!!!!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  3. writerjoney says:

    Don, may I post your response for other readers to consider? I read it quickly, so I’m not sure about wheter it needs any minor changes, but I’ll get back to you later. )I just got up. I’ts 7:45 A.M. here.

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  4. Nancy Belkov says:

    Great ideas and discussion about how we can really help teachers focus on the learning that needs to happen daily!

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  5. Frankey Jones says:

    Joanne Yatvin for Secretary of Education!

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  6. Helen says:

    Sounds good to me!

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  7. Don Bellairs says:

    First, it is unrealistic to think school boards are going to convert one school into a community center and not another. A lot of heat will be generated in the discussions about which schools qualify and which do not. A better objective: Turn ALL of a district’s big schools into 24-hour education centers. If community health officials want to use these school as a resource, that’s a good thing. But you open a can of writhing worms when you suggest that some schools will be labeled and changed and some won’t. Needs to be ALL.

    Change may be the hardest work of all in any bureacracy–schools are no exception. Any authentic education reform must first recognize that the education culture suffers from a protracted lack of accountability at all levels. Eighties deregulation did not affect only banks. Public school employees are always using somebody else’s money. My personal experience is that the jayvee coach who fast-tracked to an administrative job with a lot of discretionary spending in the budget usually needs a LOT of oversight…

    Sure, I get it that standardized tests have some serious downsides, but effective people do not make decisions in business or in other life situations without having objective data to analyze. There are teachers in our public schools who CAN change the study habits of large groups of disenfranchised kids. Some of these teachers go unrecognized because they are not union or administrative sycophants. I bet if you look around, the schools that are thriving are led by risk-taking, innovative, energetic administators–role models for teachers who will be inspired to be successful. Sadly, too many schools are led by people who are uninspired, unqualified or otherwise incapable of real leadership. Teachers are sometimes successful in spite of their influence.

    Reform in American education awaits the return of the dignity that has been eroded from the teaching profession. In Oregon, where Dr. Yatvin and I have taught (and where teachers are chattel), the state education chief was not, for a long time, even an educator and the long-serving teachers’ union president had never, ever been a teacher. It is self-evident that poor political leadership in states has a disproportionate effect on the public schools, where an opportunist with Cassius’s “lean and hungry look” can find lots of uncounted money, cushy public jobs to pass around–jobs replete with incredible (in the literal sense) retirement perks, and tons of influence in the community.

    Public school bureaucracies breed bad actors when they are allowed to become insular and deceptive. We the people obliviously create incentives for our school administrators to deceive us and then we employ objective means of evaluating the performances of neither our teachers or our administrators. America’s education history and my own personal experience while teaching in public schools in five states (and interpreting sign language in a sixth) is that people who are not being carefully supervised are cheating.

    Just like in the classroom, huh? When the kids learn that the teacher is gonna leave the room for coffee during tests, they will inevitably begin to cheat…But everybody reading this blog already knew that.

    So, with all due respect to Dr. Yatvin, the seminal questions in American education reform are: How do we recover from decades of polarized, politicized education leadership? How do we overcome the nepotism and cronyism that festers in shady environments where there is little accountablility and lots of Other People’s Money? How do we mitigate the power that has been awarded to self-interested individuals who have risen to powerful roles in unions and state bureacracies? How do we hold people in leadership postitions acountable for their conduct?

    Answering those question honestly would begin genuine reform. Until then, we will distracted by currently-trending, union-friendly “reform” ideas that are little more than fingers in the dike, presented to the public in glossy brochures and on clever, animated webpages by those ubiquitous school PR specialists who, I have discovered, have far more influence over education practices in most districts than anyone with an education resume.

    BTW: And why not turn the management of ALL schools over to professional educators?

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