Here are my simplistic solutions to solving our education problems:
When the student is ready the teacher will appear. There are no discipline problems with students who are eager and willing to learn. Parents that value education for their children and instill that in their children have a hard time fighting against the peer pressure in public schools and it is understandable they choose a religious or private school that has a culture and climate for a positive educational environment.
So, what can public schools do to create a positive educational environment?
- Stop bending over backwards to keep students in school that don't want to be there. A fortune every year is spent on "at risk" kids, and the main discipline problems stem from students that are mental drop-outs. The late Al Shanker over twenty years ago wrote an in his NY Times column that the best way to deal with these kids is to let them drop-out, but after they've gone to the school of hard knocks let them drop back in.
- Get rid of the GED. If you want students to earn a diploma don't give them a second option. If you're going to give them a second option stop counting them as drop-outs.
- Reverse court decisions that hamstring schools from having sane discipline policies. Schools have resorted to the insanity of zero tolerance because any time a principle wants to have the punishment fit the bad behavior a judge over rules him/her. If a student is constantly disruptive in behavior, attitude, bullying, vandalism, etc they are stealing the education of the other students by wasting valuable time and money. Allow the schools to expel them without having to jump through a million hoops. (If administrators showed common sense in some of their disciplinary decisions we wouldn't be in the fix. Too many times they blamed the victim not the predator)
- Restore the money that has been siphoned off for the students that don't want to be here and put it back into art, chorus, band, drama, physical education (which needs to be required for all grades). All math and science makes for a really dull school.
- Stop cluttering up the elementary grades with advanced math, science and social studies. Do third graders really need to know about plate tectonics? Algebra at the 4th grade level, come on! No wonder they stop progressing in their arithmetic and reading skill at the third grade level.
- Let students learn to enjoy reading before you throw technical writing at them. Social studies, science, even sex education turn children off to reading making it drudge work. Let them learn to enjoy reading through literature.
- Stop excluding boys from reading. Children's and young adult literature is a closed set with editors of publishing houses. They will not publish anything written for boys. This is not made up. Every publisher and agent for this age group that has spoken at Southwest Writers in the last three year has said this very point. There is nothing being published that would interest an elementary boy or middle school boy. Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys are too dated and schools won't buy them anyway. As a 7th grade teacher I bought at used book stores copies of Robert E. Howard's Conan series (the governator's movie was popular then), Barry Sadler's Casca The Eternal Mercenary series, and the works of Edgar Allen Poe. I had boys who'd brag that they'd never read a book by the end of the year upset if I stopped SSR early and they not only read the books I had them writing a short story. All my classes that year had a 100% completion for writing a short story. Students will read if what they are reading is interesting. Boys don't read at this age because nothing is being published for them.
- Physical exercise. Elementary schools are omitting recess, middle schools are cutting back P.E. and inter-school athletics. There was an article in Sports Illustrated when Bobby Fisher beat Boris Spatsky in chess for the world championship (early 70's). Fisher spent more time every day running, playing tennis or basketball than he did playing chess. He said he'd never be able to focus on the chess board for hours if his body could not provide the oxygen needed for that much concentration. We expect our students to spend 6.5 hours a day in hard desks doing nothing but learning grammar (not reading or literature), history, science, math, etc without requiring the physical exercise necessary to pump oxygen to their brains. The Greeks knew that educating the body was just as important as educating the mind. Why have we forsaken this important ingredient in education. Japan has school for 8 hours a day, but only 6.5 of that day is in classrooms (the same as here). The other 1.5 hours in devoted to exercise. They understand this, we used to understand this, why have we gotten away from it. Oh yeah, budget cuts!
This year we shifted from the regular parent/teacher meeting to student led conferences. I was skeptical at first as I have learned to be from all the new/recycled neat ideas. I found it to be a step in the right direction. Given more time, media support, and pressure from society for parents to show up for these meetings this could go a long way towards improving every students educational experience.
Students collected their, transcript, portfolio showing their work, made out a plan for their graduation and post graduate expectations. As the teacher all I did was moderate as the student told their parent(s) how successful they were or not in reaching these goals. I like the idea of students taking ownership of their future this way. The parents who showed up understood this and thought it was much better as well.
We were in class from 7 in the morning to 8 in the evening to accommodate the parents schedule, there is little excuse for the ones who were unable to take fifteen minutes to attend one of these conferences. This was the first year we've done this. I think attendance will improve in the coming years and communication between students, parents and the school will be greatly improved.