Throw Out the US Education System Now–Before the Tipping Point

Posted: 26/09/2014 in Rants and Raves

As an educator of 20 years, mostly in higher education, people often ask me what I would change about our current education system in the U.S. Five years ago, I would have said it’s fixable. We can reform it within. I can no longer say that. Those of us who teach college are seeing problems that we cannot fix. Here are my top picks for ways to make the U.S. education system a much better one, or at least start the process of change.

1. Treat teachers like the professionals they are. This includes a salary comparable to other professions that require a four-year degree and a professional internship. Ideally, as part of their professional development, all teachers should be encouraged and supported in obtaining a master’s degree as well—not for the increase in pay, but for the intrinsic increase in knowledge.

2. By the same token, make the standards for teacher education and qualification rigorous. Raise the GPA for admission to candidacy, add a fifth ‘supervised’ year of training under a mentor teacher (i.e. the new teacher is autonomous in his/her classroom, but has an experienced guide who can help them with the common problems of first-year teaching), and create a set of meaningful certification criteria that has reciprocity across states. Have yearly evaluations that include periodic observations, portfolios, and interviews rather than putting so much emphasis on students’ test scores or a once-a-year observation. If a teacher is to be considered an ‘expert’ in a specific academic discipline, he or she should hold a master’s degree in that subject as well.

And here is an addendum to colleges of education or other institutions who grant teaching degrees: Make your teacher education candidates work for it. Don’t ignore your undergraduates in favor of your research or grad students. Make sure you focus on giving students in teacher education in-school experiences plus sharp thinking and problem solving skills. Encourage their growth and creativity. Be picky about who you allow into your programs. Do not allow teacher education to be the major people choose when they can’t get into nursing school (sad, but true). Make it be the major that your best college students actively seek out…and if there is competition for limited spots, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

3. Catch the weakest K-3 students early in the education process. Get them help sooner, not later, and be willing to compensate the educators for the after-hours time they spend with these students. Provide a dedicated special education teacher, as needed, to every classroom, rather than one for every four or five classrooms. Additionally, a well-trained aide should be a part of every classroom at least through 4th grade.

4. Get over the concept that all children are destined to go to a university. They aren’t. We need qualified, energetic, and dedicated professionals in the service industry. For whatever reason, America often attaches a negative stigma to students who want to be plumbers, electricians, and bricklayers. This is unfair. Personally, I could not perform any of those tasks—and I am very thankful to have skilled men and women I can pay for their work. (My plumber is a lady, by the way).

5. Stop using a business model in education. This means getting rid of NCLB and Race to the Top, cutting back on the high-stakes testing, and abandoning ideology like Lean Six Sigma, which was great for engineering and nuclear power plants, but lousy when applied to people.

6. Find a way to equalize education spending across the country. The system is broken when children in more impoverished states are given X dollars per pupil, while in wealthier states, the spending is 3X dollars, for example. Education, for whatever reason, usually gets the ‘cut’ when a state has budget issues. Education should be the last thing from which funds are ever cut.

7. Create a balance between national and local standards. No one is saying that children in South Carolina need a year-long course in the history of Idaho, or that you must teach physical science in 7th grade and life science in 8th grade. But have some broad national learning objectives for all subjects; then, allow states to determine how they would like to structure and teach those objectives, making them specific and applicable by and on the local level.

8. End social promotion—and by the same token, stop holding back children who are capable of working ahead in a given subject. Add some flexibility to the ‘age/grade’ system, such as letting the 2nd grader who is reading on a higher level spend ELA time in a 3rd grade classroom, or the 3rd grader who hasn’t yet mastered 2nd grade math concepts, but is doing well in other areas, drop back for just that one given subject.

9. Quit promoting bad teachers to administration just to get them out of the classroom, and end the practice of nepotism in promotion. A good educational administrator must first and foremost be a good teacher. Learning to lead and administrate is a skill acquired after several years in the classroom as a teacher.

10. Lower the student to teacher ratio, and regardless of the budget, do not eliminate art, music, PE/recess, and foreign languages from the curriculum. Overwhelming evidence shows that exercise, creativity, and studying a second language are good for the brain and the body.

11. Encourage faculty to engage in creative teaching techniques and collaborative teaching. Offer incentives to teachers who lead these endeavors.

12. The love of standardized testing is so deeply ingrained in U.S. culture, it will be impossible to eradicate it completely. But cut back on it. Consider a nationally-normed test given across a span of time, such as 2nd, 6th, and 8th grade, not every year.

13. Get parents deeply involved–in education. Not just in extracurricular activities, but in supporting their children getting homework done, reading their heads off, and being responsible (according to age and other logical expectations).

14. Finally—whatever new system is put into place—allow it time to thrive and adjust before claiming it doesn’t work or is ineffectual. The most touted educational system in the world, from Finland, took 30 years to perfect and had a lot of bumps along the way.

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