The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

If I Were the Queen of Schools

on May 27, 2016

Today’s post is in many ways a summary of all the things I have written about in this blog and other places over the past several years.  It seemed to me that readers could  benefit from seeing all my ideas condensed and consider whether the things I propose would really make positive changes in American education. Let me know what you think.

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

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

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, schools could provide  social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and also add recreational and self-improvement activities now in short supply.

In restructuring school building use, the only adjustment to the daytime programs would be the addition of basic health and dental care for students. During evening and weekend hours, however, libraries, gyms, meeting rooms and computer labs would be open, offering a variety of activities for adults and young people. In addition, inexpensive and nutritious evening meals could be offered in the school lunchroom.

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

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into low performing 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 and salaries would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities.

Evaluate teachers on their own performance, not those of students

Although principals’ views of teachers’ competence are not perfect, having a wise and alert administrator observing what teachers do to help students learn is the only rational way to evaluate them. Not only formal observations should count, but also classroom drop-ins, finding a teacher in the library helping some kids with research, noticing how often a teacher volunteers to do something extra for the school, seeing a teacher eating lunch at her desk while she reads student essays, and teacher leadership among colleagues.

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 in any school district is a long, unpleasant 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 to improve the situation is to insure systematic evaluations of  teachers with prompt feedback and offers of assistance. Ultimately, all teachers marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, a dignified resignation process, and some incentives.

Cut reliance on commercial educational materials for students while increasing teachers’ professional development opportunities

Rather than depending on slick commercial programs and their disposable materials (i.e. workbooks), schools would do better to invest in high quality literature, technology, and reference books for students and professional books and university courses for teachers.

Increase the size and power of the school library and make the librarian a key figure in the education of students

Every school needs a full-time professional librarian/technologist along  with an aide so that the library is open full time during the school day and perhaps for a while after school closes. Not only should every class have a regular weekly library time, but also times when teachers can sign up to send small groups for specific assistance in finding and using library materials. School librarians should also meet with teacher teams to plan units to be taught and make sure that the materials students need are available. To make these things happen fully funding a school library should be a high priority for the principal and the school district.

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 their lack of ability but their 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. Every high poverty school should receive additional funding for student field trips and in-school music and drama performances.

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

Not only do standardized tests now dominate schools’ curricula and classroom teaching time, they are extremely expensive and of little value beyond informing local districts and state officials about schools’ average test scores. Within our schools today tested subjects crowd out other subjects, and test preparation becomes almost a subject in itself. In addition, tests influence teaching style in general making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice testing format. Both students and schools would be better served if standardized tests were given only every four years and classroom teachers were allowed to use their own methods and judgment to determine the extent and quality of each student’s learning.

Make every school a place where students want to be

In the recent studies of  test scores from school to school and district to district, researchers cite student absenteeism and indifference to learning as some of the causes of low scores and stagnation in student progress. If instead of advocating for better teaching and more rigorous students expectations, schools concentrated on providing classes and assignments that appealed to students’ interests and also gave all students opportunities to make decisions and play important roles in school operations we would see better performance from  everyone.

Although I could add a few more change proposals to my list, I believe that those above are the basics. Through my experience as a teacher and a principal I learned  a  lot about what helps teachers to teach well, children to learn, and schools to be the the healthy, happy places I have known and the even better ones I still dream of.



4 responses to “If I Were the Queen of Schools

  1. Doug Garnett says:

    Love this, Joanne. Thanks!


  2. Anne Kolibaba Larkin says:

    I would add to Joanne’s suggestions the active recruitment of bi-lingual, bi-cultural teachers and support staff to better fit the demographic make-up of the school.


  3. An important conversation starter. Seems much would be applicable in international school settings working with at-risk learners.

    I think many will link to this, so here’s one seeming typo
    Every school needs a full-time professional librarian/technologyst (=technologist?)


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