I spent most of my life in a classroom either as a student or a teacher. I still go back to schools a couple of times each week but the long hours and hard work that I once knew is a thing of the past. These days I mostly enjoy retirement but I still recall what it was like to endure those weeks that fall between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays. To put it mildly, it was always quite difficult because the students were hyped up and wanted to be doing anything else but studying. Keeping them occupied took a slight of hand and those midyear exams almost always required a curve even for the most dedicated of pupils.
I once learned of a proposed plan for year round schooling that would have included a month long holiday that spanned the weeks from Thanksgiving all the way through New Years Day. Instead of having three months off in the summer, students and teachers would have long vacations spread throughout the year. It wasn’t actually a particularly bad idea but the logistics proved to be more than the powers that be were capable of handling. Parents who worked complained the most because they would have no means of caring for their children during the off times. One idea was to hold intersessions at the schools staffed by teachers and part time workers who wanted to make some extra cash. Most of the educators worried that they would be forced to accept such positions and end up without any vacation time at all. There was also concern that they would be unable to pursue advanced degrees since many of those offerings occur during the summertime. It proved to be an interesting idea that ultimately failed.
There are hundreds of critiques of education but few doable suggestions for improvement. We have a system that has been operating with little change for decades and we are somewhat unwilling to try new ideas. I have to admit that the most tantalizing possibility lies in creating smaller schools but the infrastructures required would be incredibly expensive. Still I have noticed that when I have been in less crowded situations everybody seems happier and more productive.
There is a great deal of talk about using vouchers that would allow students to attend schools of their own choosing. They might take the government money to a private school or perhaps a charter school. While this may appear to be a tantalizing fix I can foresee a number of problems with such plans.
The first lies in the erroneous assumption that private schools are considerably better than those in the public sector. The blue ribbon private schools are generally populated with students who have been carefully selected through admissions tests. Only those students who score the highest are even considered. There are often long waiting lists for the most distinguished campuses. It is highly unlikely that an average public school student would even make the cut for consideration. Even then the tuition is generally far more expensive than the government vouchers would cover.
The lower levels of private schools are sometimes inferior to a mid-range public school. They often hire inexperienced or untrained teachers. The curriculum is haphazard and students end up falling behind their peers. I have seen situations in which certain private schools are sadly lacking in up to date facilities, materials, and methodologies. It is a mistake to assume that being private makes a campus exceptional.
One of my most exciting teaching experiences occurred in the KIPP Charter schools. Unfortunately there are more stories of failure within charter programs than successes similar to what the KIPP model has achieved. Parents are constantly being enticed by educational charlatans who have only minimal knowledge of how to run a good program. I fear that initiating a government approved voucher system would only further encourage more educational malpractice rather than improvement.
What we really need is to focus on what has made some public schools more successful than others. Certainly the attitudes of the parents, students and teachers plays a huge role in determining the overall atmosphere of a particular campus. When everyone cares and works toward a common mission miracles really do happen. I have also noticed that creating enduring relationships between all three of the actors in education is critical. A common voice and a true sense of sharing the work moves mountains. Every person counts in the truly great schools.
Students need to believe that society cares about them. When a building is old and dirty a not so subtle message pervades everything. It’s difficult to believe that education is important if the roof leaks, the floors are dirty and the paint is peeling from the walls. I recall a teacher who made her classroom as inviting as a beautiful home. She spent weeks each summer painting and replacing worn out furniture with lovely pieces that she purchased with her own money. She hung art work on the walls and kept fresh flowers and green plants in the windows. The area was spotless and inviting and her students loved her. They often commented that she made them feel special by making her room a kind of refuge. She showed them with outwards signs that she thought them worthy of more than the institutional feel of the rest of the building.
We certainly have much work to do in education. We need to get parents more involved and have more power to remove teachers who only show up for paychecks. The good news is that my years in education have shown me that the vast majority of teachers are devoted to their professions. They do far more than most outside of their world will ever realize. We need to reward such professionals with our gratitude and maybe even some compensation now and again. The truth is that they are more often than not purchasing whatever their students need with their own funds when the money is not available from the schools. Their school year routine includes hours that far exceed a normal forty hour week as well. It’s time that we quit insinuating that they are somehow inferior. We would be wise to elevate our great teachers with tangible compliments and rewards.
I wish that education would become a national priority. There are good things happening all across America but we don’t often identify exactly what makes them work. We need more research and development and the realization that there never will be a one size fits all way of doing things. Choice sounds great on paper but I believe that in the real world we just need to work on improving all of the schools that we already have. That may mean making them smaller, finding more exceptional teachers, building more inviting structures, making education cool, and involving entire communities in the process. Simply moving money from one place to another just won’t cut it. It’s time for all of us to be more serious and creative. All of our children are depending on us.