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How to “fix” public schools

How to “fix” public schools

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Kentucky educator shares list of 22-step plan By Ralph Hardin

ralphhardin@gmail.com

It’s no secret that education in the U.S., in the State of Arkansas, and right here in Crittenden County has plenty of room for improvement. Last year, a teacher in Kentucky crafted a list that began making the rounds in education circles under the title “A Kentucky Teacher’s List of 22 Things We Need to Do to ‘Fix’ Public Education.”

Most educators will tell you the most frustrating thing about designing and implementing educational models is that most of the decisions being made on how to do that are being made by non-educators. With the Marion School District considering moving to a “hybrid school calendar,” the district cited the “Kentucky Teacher’s List” as one of the sources school officials considered when looking at the potential for adopting the modified calendar, just one of the 22 “things” in the article. Here they are: 1.) We need to space out vacation time throughout the year rather than having a 2–3 month break in the summer. The long summer breaks are a holdover from “the 18th century, when 85% of Americans were farmers and schools lacked air conditioners.” That rationale no longer exists and in fact all the data suggests students lose something like 25-30% of what they learned the previous year over the long summer months — and that is especially true for students from low-income families who tend to be involved in far fewer enriching and educational activities during the summer months. Also, more breaks during the school year would cut down on burnout and stress both for teachers and students.

2.) If we’re serious about novice-reduction in the school system, then we need to offer (and even mandate) more programs for reading and math intervention outside of normal school hours, particularly during the summer months. It would require a major investment in added personnel, buses, and building maintenance during the summer.

The question is, do we really care enough about helping low-performing students to make such investments?

3.) We need to adjust all middle and high school schedules to start no earlier than 8:30 and preferably closer to 9:30 a.m. All the data suggests that adolescents are biologically inclined to function better on a later schedule and that their learning suffers when they are forced to go to sleep early and wake up early. Many progressive districts have already made this shift.

4.) We need to make sure that no class size is larger than 25 kids, with an average size set at 18–20. Just ask teachers what they prefer when it comes to class size and they will tell you that medium class sizes work best.

5.) We need to provide more quality after-school activities, late buses, field trips, and in-school speakers, special performances, and other non-traditional programs — which also means we need more public funding for those activities and programs. Without more actual funding at the district and state level, poorer kids suffer and inequality worsens. All students need to have access to meaningful extracurricular activities other than sports. Studies show that “students with positive after-school activities do better in the classroom and stay away from crime, drugs and alcohol.”

6.) We need to extend the school day by half an hour to allow students more time for lunch, recess, mindfulness, and/or to access the library, counseling services, and intervention services during the day. In many school districts the school days are simply packed Continued from Page 1

too tightly to allow for many vital activities — and that’s true for scrambling teachers with 10 minutes to eat lunch as much as it is for exhausted students who forget to pee in the three minutes between periods.

7.) We need to make sure that every school has the funding and staff to provide a full slate of the basic electives. That means art, music, drama, P.E., and foreign languages at the very least— but also other special elective courses depending on the school. The arts shouldn’t be an educational luxury.

8.) We need to take student trauma and other mental health conditions seriously.

This means we need to hire an army of counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, etc. to work in and with schools to assess student mental health needs, diagnose psychological conditions and learning challenges, and provide regular long-term counseling and care — but also in a way that doesn’t take significant time away from that child’s education.

9.) We need to pay teachers more so that public education can compete for talent with other highly-skilled professions. Teacher pay obviously needs to be aligned with the cost-of-living in a district, which means that average compensation should vary widely from place to place — but in far too many districts teachers barely make a middle class wage, and in some districts they barely escape poverty.

10.) We need to get rid of any and all government policies and programs designed to provide support to private schools and/or siphon off public support and funding from normal public schools.

That means no more voucher programs, charter schools, special tax breaks for private schools and their donors, etc. 11.) We should not allow any public school to have a population higher than 66% of application-only or “magnet” students.

This means that every public school should be made up of a minimum of 1/3 students that are “resides” or “neighborhood” students — i.e., those that do not have to apply to get in.

12.) We need to eliminate property-tax-based funding for public schools. Standardized state and national funding for education is the norm in the rest of the developed world and yet the primarily local-level funding model for public schools has long survived in the U.S., serving as a major underlying contributor to educational inequality and (by extension) residential segregation and suburban sprawl.

13.) As a related point, we need to consolidate small school districts, particularly in urban and suburban settings, to allow for more equitable distribution of resources, cut down on administrative redundancy, and increase opportunities for social, racial, and economic integration in schools.

Many major cities have been left with a splintered system of districts that has long reinforced inequality and de facto segregation and continues to produce low educational outcomes for far too many students.

14.) We need to make sure that new teachers are properly trained but also properly supported and mentored in the early stages of their careers. Even more importantly, we should make sure that every new teacher starts in some kind of co-teaching role alongside a veteran so that they can gain experience for a couple years without the trauma of having to figure out classroom management all alone.

15.) We need to recruit more minority teachers and staff. Studies show that the race of teachers does matter for educational and behavioral outcomes in schools with high-minority populations. There’s no reason why we can’t attract more minority talent to professions in public education.

16.) We need to provide mandatory high-quality public preschool for all children ages 3–4. This doesn’t mean we should be boring the poor toddlers to death! Preschool should still be as much about play and socialization as getting a jumpstart on school skills. But such programs can be a good way to ensure that all students start school ready to learn, which can pay surprising dividends for the rest of their lives.

17.) We need to add more magnet programs and intra-district busing services for middle and high schools in order to provide greater school choice and improve social, racial, and economic integration in schools. Louisville has done a mostly admirable job on this issue.

18.) We need to do more to provide paths to success that don’t require four-year college or university degrees.

This means we need to reintroduce trade school programs in high schools and educate students and parents about the full range of middle class career options, including those that do not require standard four-year post-secondary degrees.

Schools, districts, local and state governments, post-secondary institutions, and potential employers should be partnering on these kinds of programs in public middle and high schools.

19.) At the same time, we need to do more to provide counseling, preparation, scholarship access and other support services for students wishing to attend colleges and universities — particularly students from high-poverty backgrounds. There are a lot of talented low-income students out there who are not getting the support they need either to make it to college or university, to pay for college or university, or to survive and thrive once they are there.

20.) We need to fix standardized testing.

First, that means we need to decrease the sheer number of standardized tests students are required to take each year. Second, it means we need more written and critical- thinking questions on tests and fewer multiple- choice questions.

And finally, it means we need to stop setting unachievable goals for gains in school-wide testing scores, and then punishing schools and/ or teachers when their students (obviously) aren’t able to magically achieve those gains.

21.) We need to provide dramatically increased funding for school infrastructure— particularly for those schools with deficient HVAC systems, outdated plumbing, dark or overcrowded classrooms, crumbling halls, rodent/insect/mold issues, and the like.

For what it’s worth, it would also be great to see more schools lead the charge in adopting renewable sources of energy, particularly solar and geothermal.

22.) We need to encourage parents and caregivers to be more active in their child’s education. There’s an obvious connection between the level of involvement of parents and caregivers in a child’s education and that child’s educational outcomes. And yet many parents and caregivers either aren’t able to be as involved as they’d like or don’t know how.

While it is easier to simply say these things than it is to actually make them a reality, the hybrid calendar proposal appears to be just one of several steps the Marion School District is set to make in order to improve student achievement.

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