Three linchpins of education reform

January 3

What’s the one thing we need to do to make the District’s public schools great?

There is no one thing. We need to do many things, all important and many interconnected. But there are three things on which we should focus, starting now.

I’ve spent the past five years learning everything I could about education in the District, first as a funder of education-reform efforts, then as a volunteer tutor in a D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) high school and, recently, as a blogger and journalist. I’ve listened to everyone from high-level policy-makers to teachers and students — two groups that generally don’t get consulted enough.

There’s no doubt that the District has made great strides in education over the past decade. Many of our charter schools are getting terrific results. And many DCPS schools have made tremendous progress.

But there’s still a lot of room for improvement, particularly at the high school level. Proficiency rates in most DCPS high schools are abysmal, and the D.C. graduation rate is an anemic 64 percent. It’s still unclear whether recent gains made at the elementary and middle school levels will persist through high school or vanish into the ether.

I’ve come across some extremely promising ideas to get us where we need to go. The District’s Flamboyan Foundation has pioneered strategies to get parents more involved in education. The CityBridge Foundation is focusing on combining technology with traditional classroom methods to gear instruction to students’ needs and abilities. Nonprofit organizations in this town are doing amazing work.

But three areas are crucial to improving our schools:

Better teacher preparation: Education experts agree that putting an excellent teacher in the classroom is the best method — at least, within the confines of the school itself — of improving a student’s chances of success. So far, the emphasis has been on evaluating teachers on the job. That’s led to a lot of understandable dissatisfaction among teachers.

We need to evaluate teachers, of course, but the best method of getting great teachers is to make sure we’re bringing the best, and best-trained, people we can into the system in the first place. One way to do that is to hire more teachers from “residency” programs, which require aspiring teachers to spend a year in a classroom with a more experienced teacher, gradually assuming more responsibility.

A residency year doesn’t guarantee that a first-year teacher can hit the ground running, and all new teachers need mentoring. But a residency year would increase the chances that new teachers can plan lessons well and maintain control of their classrooms, two things that generally pose the greatest challenges for novices. And it should help reduce the teacher turnover rate in the District, which deprives many students of the benefits of an experienced teacher.

Discipline that allows all students to learn: Learning can’t take place if there’s disruption in the classroom. Usually, a charismatic minority of students is responsible for initiating that disruption, which then has a tendency to metastasize.

Even teachers using the best methods of classroom management will encounter a few students who don’t respond. And, in a large system such as DCPS, it’s difficult to institute an approach that’s consistent across classrooms and schools. DCPS has alternative schools for students with behavioral difficulties, but they don’t seem to be solving the problem.

One solution is to suspend disruptive students, which at least creates an environment that allows the others to learn. But it doesn’t do much for the troublemakers, many of whom get suspended repeatedly. We must reach and educate those kids, too.

Another solution is to put disruptive students into a separate classroom, with fewer kids and more behavioral controls, until they’re ready to rejoin their peers. But some kids need mental health or other social services before they can function well in a regular environment, and we should ensure they get them.

Making sure students absorb and analyze information: I’ve encountered high school students in the District who haven’t learned some basic things, including a 10th-grader who was stumped when I asked her what 60 percent of 100 was. These kids must have been exposed to this material, and they’re not stupid. They just haven’t taken in what they’ve read or been told.

We need to make sure students are writing about what they’re learning, not just in English classes but also across the curriculum. And that should start in elementary school. That approach has been shown to improve comprehension and helps to develop the skills students need to grapple with high-school-level material.

Using writing as a teaching tool probably will get students more engaged, which should reduce behavior problems and make it easier for teachers to teach (thus also addressing items one and two).

My three-part agenda for reform won’t solve every problem, but if we don’t figure out how to do these three things, it’s not clear anything else will work.

Natalie Wexler is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Education.

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