Changing America’s Broken School System
“Until the 1970s, United States public schools were among the best in the world. Today, among 30 developed countries, the US ranks in the bottom third: 25th in math and 21st in science. Even during the worst recession on record, the country’s high tech industry couldn’t find the engineers and programmers it needed and had to recruit elsewhere. By 2020, the country will have 123 million high-skill jobs to fill and fewer than 50 million Americans qualified to fill them.” http://www.tonic.com/
How long are we going to put up with our broken school system? People try to identify the problems and then hope to find solutions. Take one problem at a time, they say. But the problems that face our schools and our teachers are not easily fixable given the existing environment.
Having taught school for ten years in a completely different type of school, I can say that my take on the broken system is quite different than what most others see as problems. These disturbing facts were taken from an article published on the NPR web site.
- One-third of American eighth graders cannot perform basic math. That means more than a million thirteen-year-olds can’t do the simplest calculations needed to buy a candy bar or ride a bus.
- One-third of all teachers leave the profession in their first three years; by five years, half of them have left.
- A black child in Washington, D.C., has less than a 30 percent chance of learning how to read before he turns ten.
- The odds that any given ten-year-old in a large American city can read are about fifty-fifty, and six in ten for the nation as a whole.
- Only one in five students entering college are prepared for college-level work in math, reading, writing, and biology.
And yes, there are to many kids in the classroom, and not enough good teachers, and crime is rampant in the schools, and curriculums are to ridged, and a whole host of other things, none of which I see as problems. I view these things as symptoms of a much larger problem, and, if viewed under a different light, a very fixable problem.
Where do we start? Well, how about we start by tearing down our schools. No, I mean that literally. We tear down our buildings and we start over.
The first of my three years of teaching took place in San Francisco’s middle schools and high schools. Some rough duty I can assure you. Fresh out of college, armed with my new teaching credential, I was learning my chops by substituting for teachers that were out for the day or week and sometimes longer.
What I did not learn was how to teach. In those huge monolithic buildings with up to 4,000 students I learned other things. What I did learn were survival techniques. I witnessed teachers that were afraid to go a particular bathroom because that was the dangerous bathroom. I watched them look both ways when coming out of their classrooms to make sure the hallway was safe. I watched them avoid certain hallways if they saw congregations of kids of a certain ethnic group. They didn’t leave their cars in the school parking lot but rather parked them a couple of blocks away so it didn’t get keyed or end up with broken windows.
I also came to realize that the teachers were way over loaded. Most had 5 or 6 classes a day, with 30 or more students in each class and up to 190 total students. They were lucky if they knew the names of maybe 20 or 30 percent of their kids. Maybe, if the teacher was really conscientious, he or she new 5 or 6 of the kids parents. And, for hanging out with the kids after school or at lunchtime, forget it. That just didn’t happen. How does a teacher overcome these obstacles and be an effective teacher? It’s nearly impossible.
My next teaching assignment came in 1976, in the Mendocino County school system also in the State of California. Mendocino high school was a smaller school with a total of about 350 kids. They were having their problems too, but their biggest problem was having 38 percent of their students dropping out before graduation. Because their ADA (average daily attendance) had fallen dramatically, the State of California, (which based their allotment of tax dollars on attendance), reduced their funds. Their schools were hurting for money and they needed to do something fast.
Don Kirkpatrick, a forward and progressive thinking educator, was hired as superintendant of the Mendocino’s school system. His idea was to start a Community School. The objective of this experimental school was first and for most, to get the kids back in school and engage them again.
The County provided the building and the teachers were hired by contract. The small company that held the contract that provided the salaries to the teachers, was paid a percentage of the ADA monies. So, the more successful the teachers were in getting and keeping the kids in school, the more money the teachers made.
The brilliance of this model was that the teachers were motivated partly because of their self-interest, i.e. more students, more money. This meant first getting the students and then engaging them to keep them enrolled. This small School model offered a real alternative to the big cumbersome schools that I had just come from.
Perhaps contracting teachers for their services might be to bitter a pill for the teachers unions to swallow. However the model of the small community school might be a welcomed difference to the teachers working in the huge school factories that exist out there now.
My first experience with a public school was attending a one-room schoolhouse outside my hometown in Stephenson Michigan, located in the upper peninsula of the State. That experience taught me a lot. What I remember of that time was the school had a total of about 40 students of all ages up to the 8th grade. I remember that my older sister was three grades ahead of me and that my cousins were also in the same classroom. I remember going to them when I need help with my schoolwork. We knew the teacher, and the teacher knew all of the students and most of the members of the student’s family.
What a great model to emulate. Small community schools spread through out the neighborhoods where everyone knows everyone else. How many problems would that solve? Well, for starters it would put teachers back in control. The existing student anonymity in our huge classrooms and humongous schools, translates into individual irresponsibility and student apathy. It is just way to easy for a child to slip through the cracks.
So how about dismantling our huge buildings and setting up smaller community schools throughout our neighborhoods? A school where the teachers would know all the students because the students would stay through their entire first 7 grades or their entire last 6 grades. And, because the students would come from the immediate neighborhood, the teachers would know most of the parents, grandparents and siblings.
How great would it be for a teacher to be in an environment like this? If you had a problem student you would just call their parents and you would know those parents because this is your neighborhood. Maybe a couple of years before, you had the student’s brother and perhaps even the student’s parent in your class. And, you wouldn’t just be passing the student on to another teacher at years end. The student would be one of the small number of kids that you would have, for multiple years, in your neighborhood community school.
After tearing down the huge old buildings, the property where they once stood could be used for groupings of smaller satellite school centers. Special centers where kids could congregate with other students from other community schools. These centers could provide day programs and after school programs where the kids could participate in sports, music programs, art classes, computer and science labs, and other essential programs that would exist at these centers.
If community schools were located in neighborhoods through out the city it would be easier to offer classes to adults, or the learning impaired, or the physically impaired. After all, the school would be just around the corner or just down the street. Public education would not and should not stop at the end of the 12th grade.
Tearing down our schools, building new buildings and re situating them throughout the cities would be a very expensive proposition and would take years to accomplish. However, this year alone we will spend 100 billion dollars on the war in Afghanistan, another 100 billion dollars on the war on drugs and who knows how much money on the social problems that exist solely or partly because of our failed schools.
When you put this into perspective it doesn’t seem like it would be a bad investment. We could try changing to a smaller community school based system in just one district in one of our problem Cities. If we have good results, we could tackle the rest of the City and then on to other inner Cities expanding outward from there, one step at a time.
Really, what are the reasons for these huge factory type monolithic structures anyway? Are they just a way to save money? Just how much money are we really saving when we factor in the costs of all the social problems that result from our bad schools?
There are Charter schools out there now that are experimenting with smaller schools with more individual care. These schools are for the most part private and deserve our support. However, the powers that be, in the government and public school system, need to step up and make some changes that will actually produce some results. I think our children, and our society needs and deserve a better and safer a school system.
Footnote: In my last year of teaching at the Community school in Mendocino, our school, thanks to our brilliant director Charles Bush and the other incredibly gifted members of the staff, won the Golden Bell award. The Golden Bell award was given to the best alternative school in the State.