Friday, May 25, 2012


Recently, NPR aired a story about an Indiana third grader who was at risk of being retained if he didn’t retake and pass a statewide reading assessment this summer.  The child was compellingly sad.  His summer was shot and it hadn’t even started.  The mother, however, was not so compellingly angry at the system.  Quote: “It breaks my heart that my nine-year-old thinks he’s stupid.  It isn’t fair…” 

The agonized mom’s comment forces a question or two:  Did the she spend time reading with her child?  Or is she just concerned that he thinks himself stupid?

But larger questions arise as well:

·      Do annual state assessments give educators enough data about students and programs to make fully informed decisions?
·      When parents of failing schools are offered choices do they take them?
·      Are Alternative Schools like Charters (Charters being publicly funded institutions given a mulligan on certain public school requirements) proven to provide better results than their public brethren?  If so, what are Charter Schools allowed to do that traditional schools cannot?
·      What evidence exists that large-scale privatization of schools will achieve better results?  We know privatization of prisons hasn’t proven overwhelmingly successful.
·      As funding falls, class sizes rise, materials tatter and facilities crumble, is it logical to expect today’s students to do as well as yesterday’s?

And Saturday Night Live's "Church Lady" is always more than willing to ask this one:

·      Somebody benefits when we don’t provide support for our schools.  Who might that somebody be?

Arguments about how to reform schools are generally specious in nature, politically or selfishly motivated and espoused by people who may not have much experience actually doing the good work of educators.  Too frequently they are folks who, because they attended for twelve or thirteen years, think they possess some magic wellspring tonic that will fix our schools. 

Sadly, the solution to improving our schools is easy to state but grindingly difficult to implement.  Here are nine needs to consider:

1.     Parents need to take an active role in supporting their kids' education.  That means turning off the TV and video games, prioritizing school with Little League and soccer and actually spending daily time on schoolwork with the kids.  This is more than wafting parental pixie dust over the homework.  It involves checking for their understanding of the math page, listening to them read, and spending time each day reading to them.
2.     Teachers need to respect those practices that have proven successful while seeking innovative ways of doing things.  Technology can be wonderful for reinforcing new learning or exploring wider concepts, but it does not replace the teacher going face to face with the student who is struggling – or the student who is not. 
3.     Universities need to provide the system with inquisitive teachers who have demonstrated the ability to think critically and solve problems - not just credential individuals for having put in seat time in a graduate program.  A university dean responded a question of mine with another question of his own: “How would the parent of a college kid feel if, after five years of university, we told him he wasn’t qualified to teach school?”  “I don’t know,” I didn’t say because I was just a young punk myself, “perhaps like someone wasn’t doing his job?”
4.     Curriculum needs to reflect learning that goes beyond knowledge to include critical thinking and problem solving - things that cannot be assessed on an annual fill-in-the-bubble assessment.  In general, the only time a citizen has to fill in a bubble after finishing school is when he or she takes the written driver’s exam.  All other questions that confront us involve greater than yes or no answers.  Take, for instance, climate change, Middle East peace, or what to have for dinner tonight.
5.     Administrators need to work with staff to constantly improve instructional practices; they need to more easily be able to release ineffective teachers for cause; and they need to know that "cause" is not strictly defined by student performance on yearly exams.  Students who struggle can be led to improvement; likewise with teachers who struggle.  Administrators unwilling to do this should be led to the door.
6.     Localities need to hold superintendents accountable; superintendents need to hold principals accountable; principals need to hold staff accountable - but PARENTS need to hold kids accountable. If that isn't happening, it ain't gonna work.  Parents: It’s part of the bargain you signed on for when you decided to have offspring.
7.     Politicians need to cut the crap with retention.  Study after study proves retention doesn't work.  Talking tough doesn't help.  Rather: Politicians need to ensure schools have the revenues necessary to provide a free and appropriate education to all kids.  For some kids, that means more individualized attention and support - with or without a Special Education Plan.  Politicians:  If this conflicts with some pledge you’ve ascribed to other than to protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic, decide which one is more important to you.  Your response may cause you to have to resign your elected office.
8.     The nation needs to simply get past the idea that the measure of a good education is how much wealth one amasses over the course of his or her life.  “Job-ready” is a fundamentally low bar for schools.  Literacy teaches perspective.  Algebra teaches reason.  History teaches a sense of place.  Science allows us to wonder.  The Arts release our spirit.  All are essential.  None are typically addressed on a job application.  Each makes us more human, more able to connect and, most would contend, more content.
9.     Finally, we all need to support our school system with our time, our money and an understanding that the democratic foundations of this country rest on the bedrock of a sound education – one that is available to all kids regardless of wealth or disability.

If all stakeholders: kids, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, trustees, communities, politicians and the nation pull together to show we value schools by our words and actions, we will see an upward sweep in student performance.   

If however, we succumb to stakeholder subgroups or talking heads who sidetrack us by spurning the system and pointing baseless fingers of blame, we’ll continue to get what we have now: Children – like that little guy in Indiana – left behind.


The clip from NPR may be accessed at:

© 2012
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. "...the democratic foundations of this country rest on the bedrock of a sound education..."

  2. Mr. Brilliant smacks the long ball over the centerfield fence!

  3. It goes much deeper than that. We've become a society of dysfunction with extensive drug use, immorality, rampant divorce, with little structure and discipline. Many pressures for children with a lack of security and a sense of feeling loved. Also, the school environment needs to convey a relevance in curriculum, where as they can hold an interest and not lose their students.

  4. @ Anonymous: The same comments you've shared could have been made thirty years ago regarding drug use, immorality, divorce, etc.