The first tale came from someone outside of education. He visited a poor school to do some helpful work. He said that the school was dismal, and the children sad. He was so discouraged.
The next individual, a veteran educator, felt powerless in her school. She has many children with multiple needs, yet little to no social service outreach, and less creative programming or support. She is rarely to never consulted about the work she does, and constantly receiving directives that lie far from the most essential needs of her students or the educators in her midst.
The last teacher's tale was the saddest. He and his colleagues were clearly dedicated to the students they teach, but they have minimal say over anything they do. This educator, also a veteran, was telling me about the books he's collected over the years and the successful ways that he builds a culture of readers in his class. He also told me of the constant need to compromise and choose one student over another because there is little support and specialist teachers rarely to never show up to help. Then he shared the tale of the model change he'll work with next year--a change that may look good on paper, but as he described what it meant for his population, it was clear that there's little strength in the model and lots of problems ahead.
In the end, I was discouraged hearing these tales. I also realized how fortunate I am to work in a school that has so many good structures, staff, and resources in place to teach children well.
In light of this, what do we need to better American schools?
First, in schools of great need, I don't think classrooms should exceed 12 students. Sadly, it's our poorest schools that often have the largest numbers, yet the children's needs are the greatest.
Next, most staff should be spending quality time-on-task with students most of the time. Yes, educators need quality time for planning and preparation, but children also need time-on-task with highly skilled, caring professionals. In many of these struggling schools, the specialist teachers don't show up when assigned and don't meet caseload expectations. This shouldn't happen.
After that, schools need to regard their teachers, students, and context with care. Leaders have to listen to what teachers have to say. In some schools the leadership changes regularly while teachers stay in the school for years. New leaders who are ambitious to move up the professional ladder, may make decisions that look good on paper, but are not good for the children or contexts for which they serve.
Then, all students deserve rich programming. It seems, from listening to these tales, that some of our most struggling students continually receive watered-down, dull programming due to the fact that there just isn't the time, resources, or staffing to serve the needs of all students well which leaves teachers in tough schools with tough decisions about who to serve. This shouldn't be the case. Serving all students well starting in preschool will result in better communities, less violence, and more contribution later on.
Also, the resources in these schools are lacking. They don't have computers. They don't have quality music, art, libraries, and physical education programs. They don't have good facilities. They don't have beautiful playgrounds. They don't make the time to build joyful, happy, student-centered cultures.
In many cases, they have tough, needy populations to serve, populations that require extra support such as social services, health centers, and food programs, but I don't think it's beyond the resources of our country to boost schools that face these challenges with the constructs below:
- 12 or less students per class.
- A focus on high quality education that includes the arts.
- A computer for every child, and resources to make sure the computers work well all the time.
- Adequate numbers and quality of specialist teachers who show up on time, fulfill expectations, and meet the needs of all children.
- Bright, student-friendly academic facilities with playgrounds.
- Violence free zones surrounding the school.
- Teacher voice, choice, and responsibility.
- High expectations for leadership to create and foster dynamic, student-friendly, successful communities.
- Adequate financial and educational resources so teachers have what they need to teach well.
- Substantial numbers of well trained paraprofessionals who run recess and lunch as well as provide extra support to all educators and students. Ideally the paraprofessional staff and the teaching staff well represent the cultural groups and neighborhoods of the students in the school.
Auditing schools for service to children should be a simple, comprehensive system that looks at schools to see if the whole child is serviced well. I remain a fan of streamlined standardized test scores and believe that those scores should be one of a large number of simple measures including the following:
- Are students in the school happy?
- Are the students making expected academic games?
- Is each child getting high quality teacher care and response daily? (Skilled teacher time-on-task with a low ratio of educator to students are critical.)
- Are students reading great books on their own and with teachers daily?
- Are students learning math in blended ways with the best tools and pedagogy?
- Are students writing to create multimedia compositions regularly to tell the stories about what they know and care about as well as what they are learning?
- Are students gaining knowledge in a broad array of subject areas with meaningful, engaging, high quality projects and endeavor.
- Do schools have a strong sense of culture that responds well to the diversity and interests of the school and community population?
- Does leadership support the educators in the school while making sure that students' needs are met and also advocating for the financial support and optimal resources?
High quality community schools that have the conditions for excellence will serve our students and our country well. I know schools like this exist. Schools that have unrealistic expectations such as old fashion factory models, inadequate facilities and resources, too high student-teacher ratios, staff that don't show up to do their work, and leadership that's more interested in how the school looks on paper than in real life won't succeed.
It's a crime not to give young children a good education from early on, and as a culture, we have to think about what really matters when it comes to teaching students well, and make the time and money to creatively do what is right and good.