I've written a lot on this blog about problems with education and problems with talking about the problems with education. I think I've offered hints as to where my brand of solution would work, but I don't think I've ever put it into a coherent form before. Given the importance of the issue and the need for clear direction in order to actually make effective change, here's my plan for saving public education.
1) Focus on where the problem is.
Say what you will about a Nation at Risk and all that, but it's not the entire education system that's a problem. In fact, many (if not most) schools work very well. Look at the public schools in upper middle class suburban neighborhoods and see if there's a crisis in those schools. Odds are, you won't be finding one. The crisis in education is located almost entirely in areas where there is extreme poverty and a lack of appropriate social services. Any plan to address the problems in education shouldn't be trying to focus on a solution that would apply equally to all schools. That's unneeded and counterproductive. Look at the schools that need the help.
2) Get parents more involved.
I've worked with schools in two vastly different New York City neighborhoods: the Bronx and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Both sets of schools are government-funded and operate under the same set of Chancellor's regulations. They operate under the same testing and curricular requirements. But they are not equal. Without question, if deciding where I was going to send my own children, the Bronx wouldn't merit more than about a tenth of a second of consideration.
So what's the difference?
In brief, it's the parents. While in the Bronx getting 1/3 of parents to parent/teacher conferences was considered a pretty high success rate. Having parents check in once a year or so on their child's progress was rare, to put it mildly. On the Upper East Side, it's almost the opposite problem. The parents are all over the place and are on the edge of being too pushy. Except that's not a problem. That's the solution. Where the parents care the schools will improve.
Increasing parental involvement will require a huge community organizing-style campaign to get parents interested and involved in the system. Parents need to be educated on what they can do and why they should do it. They should be taught to read to their kids every day, talk about school and homework, and come to conferences. Once the parents are on board, the kids will follow.
3) Increase investment in social services in high-poverty areas.
It's great to say that parents should just get involved in schools. But even with community organizing and education, parental involvement won't necessarily become a reality. An increased investment in social services like health care, day care, and more will help bring more parents - and their children - into the kind of stable situation that allows for parental involvement and student success.
4) Invest in early education.
We can't afford to continue waiting until kindergarten to begin educating children in high-needs areas. By that point the kids are already behind their more affluent counterparts. Experience has shown us that those problems don't diminish with time. In addition to reading to kids more at home we need to start building in kids the foundation that will carry them through their education. On the Upper East Side, the parents do this. Clearly, in underserved neighborhoods parents often don't or can't. This is where free public early education programs can step in to aid in the solution.
5) Increase teacher quality.
Repeatedly, studies have found that good teachers make the difference in the classroom. So, as a society, we need to work to make sure that we have the best possible teachers in every classroom. This means stepping up recruitment efforts to find dedicated teachers willing to teach in high poverty neighborhoods. It also means that we need to put a huge investment into professional development for teachers. Some people are naturals and walk in knowing what to do right away. Others need to be taught. We can't expect every teacher to be exceptional, but we can give every teacher the tools and training they need to be successful.
6) Create a system of national standards, but back off on testing.
Eighth grade students in New York City are expected to take at least 12 state or city mandated tests each year. That's simply absurd. The absurdity of the situation is rendered even more starkly by the fact that these tests are almost a sham. Right now the federal government mandates that each state have standards, test students on those standards, and that students make progress on meeting the standards. However, the standards themselves are up to the states as are the tests to measure student success in meeting the standards. This creates a system of perverse incentives where states are literally racing to the bottom. A system of national standards across the curriculum paired with a testing system that is not purely punitive will obviate that trend and give us actual data to work with as we plan our next steps in education reform.
And that's more or less it. Increasing funding and all that is great, but only if it's used intelligently. Throwing good money into bad programs doesn't help anyone. However, a plan that looks at the schools themselves and the environments in which they exist and tries to improve both is out best chance at creating an effectively working education system for all children.