What would reasonable school reform look like?

In my last two articles for Occasional Planet, I lambasted two current trends in our country’s educational system: over-reliance on standardized tests and the desire to lengthen the school day and school year.  And, to be honest, lambasting is easy (not to mention fun).  It’s easy to point to something and say, “That’s stupid, here’s why.”  It’s much tougher to come with an alternative that makes sense.  But having been a teacher myself for six years, and now being a parent for seven years, I do have some ideas about reasonable, common sense ways to improve schools.

Smaller class sizes, better learning

No question about it, this is the single most effective way to improve student learning.  I’ve taught classes of sixteen and I’ve taught classes of thirty, and I can tell you unequivocally that the students in my smaller classes learned more.  They received more of a chance to participate in class discussion, I could spend more time with them conferencing about their writing, I was able to contact their parents and give them feedback more often.  In large classes, particularly classes with high numbers of struggling learners, teachers are forced to create lessons that keep things under control and orderly rather than interactive and creative.  It becomes about crowd control, and that doesn’t lead to fun, high quality learning.  It leads to teacher burn-out and bored students.

More support staff, like social workers and counselors

A tremendous amount of my time that I should have spent planning lessons and grading papers when I was a teacher was spent trying to manage my students’ very real, very urgent personal crises.  We had a social worker whom we shared with another middle school–she came only on Tuesdays and Thursdays—so if some emergency came up I (and my fellow classroom teachers) often spent our very scarce planning periods dealing with it.  I remember a winter afternoon I spent with a student named Hernando trying to figure out how to get the gas turned back on at his house (where no one spoke English) so that his family would have heat.  I’m not patting myself on the back here—I was no different than most of my other colleagues in this regard—but I’m just saying that sometimes grading and planning gives way to emergency phone calls home and intense one-on-one conversations with kids who are hurting.  If all schools had enough social workers and counselors to really help their needy students, teachers could teach more effectively, and students would learn more effectively.

Assume good will

Most teachers are professionals who are passionate about student learning, not lazy incompetents who are wallowing in their tenured security and biding their time until retirement.  Similarly, most parents love their kids more than anything else in the world and want desperately for them to succeed and be happy.  Of course a teacher will have a bad day occasionally, and a parent might drop the ball from time to time (I will not bore you with the story of my second grader’s landform diorama drama, but suffice to say it wasn’t my best parenting episode).  But let’s all acknowledge that we’re human beings doing the best we can.  Let’s assume good will and get on with the business of helping children learn to love learning.

Treat teachers as the professionals they are

When I graduated college and started teaching, I never would have guessed that teachers would be demonized the way they are today in some political circles.  Yes, bad, lazy teachers exist, and they should lose their jobs when they show no real improvement.  But most teachers are not like that, and they should be accorded the same respect shown to other professionals.  And part of that respect is pay.  If you want to attract and retain good teachers, you have to pay them well.  Teachers have mortgages, student loans, and kids of their own, and you shouldn’t have to choose between a job you are passionate about and supporting your family well.  Whether right or not, in our society, money denotes respect and prestige.  If society wants to show teachers they are valued, then teachers should be compensated as the highly trained professionals they are.

There is really nothing radical in these four suggestions for improving schools.  I would hazard to predict that if you walked into any faculty lounge or PTO meeting and started a conversation about school reform, all four of these ideas would quickly gain a consensus.  The bigger question might be why, in a time when more lip service than ever is being paid to the importance of education, do we lack the political will to enact even these very basic reforms?