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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 04/17/2011

An unorthodox school reform blueprint

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This post was written by Joanne Yatvin, a vet­eran public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is now teaching part-time at Portland State University.

By Joanne Yatvin
Having complained long and loud about the misguided school reform schemes that rule the day, I think it’s time for me to step up and offer my own ideas for making schools work. Be warned that my proposals are not only unorthodox, but also teacher-biased, and cheap. Well, at least cheaper than the test-drenched plans now in place and on the horizon.

My version of school reform is based on two premises: (1) poverty and its accoutrements are the major causes of students’ poor academic performance (2) the principals and teachers who live their professional lives in schools are best qualified to make decisions for schools and to implement them.

Convert schools in high-poverty areas to full-time community centers.

By moving as many community services as possible into school buildings and making them available in the evenings and on weekends year round, schools could provide existing social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and add recreational and self-improvement activities now in short supply.

In restructuring building use, the only adjustment to the daytime program would be the addition of basic health and dental care for students. During evening and weekend hours, however, libraries, gyms and computer labs would be open to all, offering a variety of classes, clubs, arts, and sports. In addition, inexpensive and nutritious family meals could be served in the school lunchroom, financially supported by local charities and food banks.

Turn over the management of high-poverty schools to professional educators.

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into struggling schools by offering them incentives of autonomy, professional advancement, and higher salaries. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal, chosen by the school staff and parents, schools would be empowered to create their own structures, including a principal’s cabinet and grade level instructional teams. Within each team, roles and salaries would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, experience, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities.

Evaluate teachers on their own performance, not those of students

I argue that too many factors beyond a teacher’s control affect students’ test scores, even when the school uses a “value added” system. What a student learns—both good and bad—comes as much from home, the street, the state of his or her health, and personal interactions as from the classroom. And each student makes choices about what to work hard at and what to ignore.

Although principals’ views of teachers’ competence are not perfect, having a wise and alert administrator considering what teachers do to help students learn is the only rational way to evaluate them. Not only formal observations should count, but also finding a teacher in the library helping some kids with research, noticing how often a teacher volunteers to do something extra for the school, seeing a teacher eating lunch at her desk while she reads student essays, or catching him on the phone talking to a parent.

Offer early retirement to burned-out teachers and incentives for ineffective younger teachers to resign or transfer to non-teaching positions.

At present, removing an unsuccessful teacher is a long and expensive process. But the problem is not teacher tenure. It is the lack of evidence of failure that makes attempting to remove a teacher look arbitrary or vengeful. The first step is to insure systematic evaluations of all teachers with prompt feedback and offers of assistance. Ultimately, any teacher marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, a dignified resignation process, and monetary incentives. For both older teachers and their districts the incentives would be financially advantageous, with teachers getting a portion of their retirement benefits and the district getting the chance to hire a new teacher at a much lower salary.

Cut reliance on expensive commercial materials for students while increasing teachers’ professional development opportunities to increase their expertise.

Rather than depending on slick commercial programs and their disposable materials (i.e. workbooks), schools would do better to invest in high quality literature, technology, and reference books for students; and professional books and journals, presentations from local innovators, and university courses for teachers. At the same time, schools could purchase small numbers of a variety of commercial programs in which teachers might find good ideas they could modify and expand upon to fit their students’ needs.

Provide poor children with the background knowledge and support they may have missed at home and in their community.

What makes school difficult for most poor children is not lack of ability but meagerness of social, cultural and literary experiences. What many have missed out on is being read to, having substantive conversations with adults, visiting museums, parks, forests, and beaches, and being members of a civil society. To learn academic content and skills successfully, poor children need a school environment that is not only welcoming and supportive, but also rich in books, hands-on activities, cooperative learning, and exposure to the world outside their home community.

Reduce the number of standardized tests and the time devoted to test preparation

Not only is standardized testing expensive, it also allows tested subjects to crowd out other subjects, and test preparation to become almost a subject in itself. Furthermore, tests influence teaching style, making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice format. Both students and schools would be better served if standardized tests were given only every few years and classroom teachers wrote yearly tests that demanded student analysis, judgment, and the synthesis of ideas.

Although I could add more change proposals to my list, these are the basics. I chose to highlight ideas that run counter to much of what is being proposed for school reform today. Since I never know whether to laugh or cry when pundits and policy makers call for more testing, standardization, charter schools, academic rigor (mortis?), ending teacher tenure, and implementing merit pay, I stuck to describing the major features of the good schools I have known and the great ones I still dream of.


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