A Teacher’s Perspective on School Reform

When people talk about problems with our schools, I hear a lot of blame: blaming, teachers, blaming parents, blaming kids. And when they talk about how to reform schools, I hear a lot of “get tough” measures: get tough on schools, get tough on teachers, get tough on kids.

What I don’t hear are the sort of obvious, logical reforms that educators – people who have the most direct experience in education – advocate.

None of my ideas are original, but I have compiled them here to give you a sample of what what one teacher, one person who actually works with students on a daily basis, strongly believes would make a difference.

1. Small Class Size. I am fortunate to have one class of just six students. That class gets three times as much work done as my other classes and has three times as much time left over for fun and games. That’s a happy and productive class. Until this semester, my idea of a dream class size was 16 students. But from this year’s experience, I see that a class of 6 students can easily soar way beyond what a class of even 16 can accomplish.

2. Small School Size. In his book, the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s refers to Dunbar’s number, the maximum number of people in an organization that can form a cohesive group.  This number is approximately 150. At six students per class, that would be about two classes per grade from kindergarten through eighth grade, along with teachers and support staff. I have worked in schools about that size (although the classes were larger), and they feel more like a community than larger schools. This decreases student alienation, and strengthens relationships. To further strengthen relationships, teachers should stay with the same cohort of children for multiple years. This can help to create an emotionally safe and secure environment for learning. It also reduces the time students need to adjust to a new teacher so they can more quickly allow themselves to open up and fully participate.

3. Goodbye Summer Vacation. Come on – we all know that the school calendar in the United States is antiquated. We spend 180 days of the year learning and the entire summer trying our best to forget everything we just learned. When school starts up in fall, we play catch-up to make up for all the backsliding that’s occurred over the summer. School calendars should be year-round and have their vacations timed to meet the local climate demands. So, in the North East, there should be a vacation scheduled in the dead of  winter, when people take their lives in their hands to brave the treacherous roads to an expensively heated school. And, in the South, a vacation would make sense when students risk heat stroke on their way to an expensively air-conditioned school in the height of summer.

4. Reinstate P.E. and Recess! Physical education is good for brain development, and students consolidate learning while they are playing at recess. Plus, as a teacher I can tell you that students who get a chance to run around are much more able to focus in class. It’s unnatural, and counter-productive, to force children to sit still all day.

5. Utilize Multiple Intelligences. Music, visual arts, kinesthetic learning, and exposure to nature should all be fully incorporated into the curriculum. Right now, we are so focused on the laudable goals of improving math and reading skills that we forget that those skills will more easily be improved if we accommodate different learning styles. There should be dancing in math class and nature walks in English class.

6. Emotions and Logic are not Mutually Exclusive. Affective thinking should not be separated from cognitive thinking. To put that in more universal language, our feelings help us learn. This isn’t just a made up notion. Learning is deepest when contains an emotional component. We should be aware of how we feel about what we are learning.

7. Social and Emotional Learning. We also need to teach children the social skills necessary for successful interactions in school and in life. One thing I’ve noticed is that the inability to deal constructively with conflict and emotion interferes with the student’s ability to focus on learning in school. Conflict resolution and the repairing of relationships are skills that should be consistently taught from early ages, and schools are the perfect social environments to teach them. Relatively unstructured times such as recess are the best opportunities for children to learn how to navigate interpersonal conflict. And since cooperative learning has been shown to be more effective than individualistic learning, students need to be taught group learning skills before they are thrown into groups and expected to work together.

8. Get rid of homework. Homework is bad. It stresses out children and their families. Studies show it does not improve academic performance or retention of knowledge. Some adults believe that homework will help teach responsibility. But, we generally think it a bad thing to take our work home with us as adults. We understand that there should be a separation of work and home life. We need time to relax and recharge. Many teachers only give out homework because they are expected to by other adults: administrators and parents. And, those adults expect homework because when they were children they had homework. Even those teachers who know enough to be opposed to homework will generally give it to children to prepare them for… homework! That’s right. You get homework in 5th grade so you’ll get used to it because you are going to have it in 6th grade. It’s a pointless, self-perpetuating system. In my current school, there are students who would be passing their classes – they do well on classwork and tests – but they are failing because they don’t get their homework done. In other words, there is clear evidence that they are learning yet they may have to repeat a grade of school because they aren’t going along with homework oppression. In the end, it’s a form of violence against children. It’s child abuse. Stop it.

9. “Our Schools Are Not Enclaves of Totalitarianism.” Those are the wise words of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. And yet, the adults who run many of our schools spend much of their energy trying to control students in meaningless ways. For example, it’s almost universal that kids aren’t allowed to wear hats in school. Why not? Apparently, it was considered rude some time in our culture’s past. But look around – adults wear hats indoors!  I’ve seen teachers grab the hats off children who are on their way outside. Kids get yelled at for wearing hats. How can anyone learn in such an oppressive environment that feels like the adults are just waiting for them to make a mistake with arbitrary rules? Educator should also be clear about what the reason is behind their efforts to control children’s behavior. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I trying to control this child for the benefit of the child, of the class, or for my own benefit?” I once shadowed a 5th grade student for a day and counted how often she was told to be quiet by adults. About 20 times per hour hour, she or the whole class was told, in one way or another, to shut up. Imagine being told by people in charge of your life to sit still and shut up every three minutes, all day, every day. Now imagine being a kid, with the energy of a kid, and enduring your days like that.

10. Siestas. OK, this one may seem silly at first, but hear me out. Half-way through the school day, kids (and adults) get sleepy. We have our lowest energy  about 12 hours from our deepest sleep. When I taught 2nd grade, the kids were always asking me for a nap, but I felt obligated to forge ahead even though I felt like taking a nap, too. There should be a nap period for kids over kindergarten age. Alternatively, some people benefit from exercise, instead of sleep.  If you would like to be a part of the North American Siesta Movement, join my Facebook group.

11. Fund Schools Fairly. School funding should be taken out of the property tax base, which is inherently unequal. Every student deserves the same educational resources regardless of where their parents happen to live. For an example of how uneven funding hurts children, see my post about two adjacent high schools in Providence, Rhode Island.

12. What About Teacher Pay? Although teachers are woefully underpaid, I don’t think that increasing teacher compensation will lead to better teaching. Good teachers don’t do it for the money. If anything, adequate pay would attract some people for the wrong reason. Don’t get me wrong – teacher should be paid more, in fact, I think that as long as pay in our society is unequal, teachers deserve more of it than anyone else, except maybe fire fighters. But that’s not an education reform, that’s just a matter of valuing teachers.

Some of these reforms require adopting a new ideology, some mean relinquishing a bit of control, and at least one costs money. It’s difficult for adults to change their ways of being, and people, especially those without children in public school, don’t seem willing to invest more of their own money. It’s always easier to find someone or some group of people to blame for a problem, but the truth is that the problems of education in the United States are structural, and we won’t solve them by focusing on the players instead of how the game is played.

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8 Responses to A Teacher’s Perspective on School Reform

  1. […] turned into something you can no longer do. We seem to be moving in the opposite direction from the reforms we truly need. “I don’t think turnover is inherently bad,” said Andrew Rotherham, publisher of […]

  2. I enjoyed reading your observations and your candour. Good luck with your teaching. It is good to see such sensible ideas from someone who is out there actually working with students.

  3. Mr. P says:

    I’m a second year teacher and I think that a great deal of what you put out there in this post is right on the money. Education has become stagnated, everyone knows it needs to be ‘fixed’ but nothing ever happens. While becoming certified I interned at a school that follows the Expeditionary Learning model and was blown away.
    What do you think about the Expeditionary Learning model? I am trying to get my grade, then school, then district to get on board. You can see how it’s going so far here:

    http://talesofan8thgradenothing.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/a-new-model/

    • EricIndiana says:

      I hadn’t heard of it, but it sounds like a more programmatic way of project-based learning, which I like a lot. Of course, the challenge is to integrate the disciplines into the projects, but it’s a good challenge to have. It’s a creative way to teach & learn, and you end up with a sense of accomplishment.

  4. […] A Teacher’s Perspective on School Reform […]

  5. Oh! I was afraid you were getting rid of summer camp! My kids go to sleep away camp every year. I’d be really, really sad if summer vacation went away.

    Other than that though, I totally agree about the homework and ESPECIALLY the class size. People who say class size does not make a difference must not have ever taught. It’s insane to think that thirty kids could accomplish the same amount as, say, 15.

  6. […] Goodbye Summer Vacation. Come on – we all know that the school calendar in the United States is antiquated. We spend 180 days of the year learning and the entire summer trying our best to forget everything we just learned. When school starts up in fall, we play catch-up to make up for all the backsliding that’s occurred over the summer. School calendars should be year-round and have their vacations timed to meet the local climate demands. READ FULL POST […]

  7. Sue Boudreau says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful list. Yes. So glad to have found a like minded teacher/blogger.

    The one that particularly resonates for me is that logic and emotion are not mutually exclusive. Ken Robinson expounds on this idea the ‘creativity’ is creating something new of value in whatever field of endeavor. And that we remember what we feel, as you point out. I love the drama and beauty of science and want to transmit that to my students. It’s what keeps me out of the lab and in the class room.

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