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Posted at 01:00 PM ET, 12/07/2011

Five wishful changes for D.C. area schools

Washington area schools, on average, are much better than those elsewhere in the nation when measured by student achievement, level of challenge, quality of teachers and sophistication of equipment. In this holiday season, let’s appreciate those blessings.

But how can we make them better? We need resolutions for improvement in 2012. What are the most important changes our schools should be making? Here are my suggestions:

1. Require that all high school students write a research paper before they graduate. Many private schools do this. Public school students frequently praise the research paper portion of the International Baccalaureate program. It invigorates them and makes the transition to college easier. If given enough time and encouragement, students are capable of writing these papers, but we have to give teachers enough time to help them. Schools might try what Wakefield High School in Arlington County has done: Require a senior project that can be a research paper, an internship, a performance or some other, less academic enterprise.

2. Discard elementary school homework in favor of free reading. Research shows that through fifth grade, it doesn’t matter whether your children have homework. They will still, on average, score the same on standardized tests. Many parents, and young children , still want homework because it is part of our culture. So why not change the assignments to something that all educators agree is useful: more reading? The child can choose the books or magazines. It would mean a half-hour of reading a night in kindergarten through second-grade, with parents helping, and an hour in grades three to five.

3. Do a thorough investigation of test tampering in D.C. schools. This won’t happen, I am afraid. The people in charge of finding out why wrong-to-right erasures surged on the annual D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests in the past few years are showing little interest in getting to the root of what appears to me to be widespread cheating by principals. My request to see the erasure data for the spring exams has not been honored, three months after I was told the numbers were available. The city officials in charge of the investigation have apparently not even interviewed the students affected. No one will be able to trust those results, and the credibility of future tests is also in jeopardy.

4. Open public charter schools in Northern Virginia. The District has plenty of these independently operated, taxpayer-financed schools. Some are among the city’s best schools. The Maryland suburbs also have a few. Only the Virginia suburbs have resisted the opportunity to see what creative teachers can do when freed of school district regulations. Veteran educators have an application to start a charter in Fairfax County. A national charter network wants to start one in Loudoun County. Two of the highest-performing and wealthiest school districts in the country should not fear charters. But these proposals will get much resistance, because many public school officials don’t like competition.

5. Make Maryland a model for adopting the world’s most successful approaches to schooling. Virginia and Maryland are near the top of many measures of school performance. But Maryland, particularly under retiring State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, has been the more consistent innovator. No state is better equipped, politically and culturally, to embrace systems that have helped Singapore, Japan and Finland lead the world in teaching children. The changes would include significantly raising standards for admission to public schools, teacher training programs and deepening those programs, ideas with widespread support in the Maryland.

Do you have wishes for our schools? Please post them on my blog or e-mail me.

By  |  01:00 PM ET, 12/07/2011

 
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