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Boosting Schools' Value Without Spending a Dime

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By Jay Mathews
Monday, February 16, 2009

As happens in every recession, Washington area school systems are cutting back. It's depressing. Here's an antidote: Harness the creativity of educators, parents and students to improve our schools without more spending. Some teachers I trust helped me come up with these seven ideas.

1. Replace elementary school homework with free reading. Throw away the expensive take-home textbooks, the boring worksheets and the fiendish make-a-log-cabin-out-of-Tootsie-Rolls projects. One of the clearest (and most ignored) findings of educational research is that elementary students who do lots of homework don't learn more than students who do none. Eliminating traditional homework for this age group will save paper, reduce textbook losses and sweeten home life. Students should be asked instead to read something, maybe with their parents -- at least 10 minutes a night for first-graders, 20 minutes for second-graders and so on. Teachers can ask a few kids each day what they learned from their reading to discourage shirkers.

2. Unleash charter schools. I know, I know. Many good people find this suggestion as welcome as a call from a collection agency. They think charter schools, public schools that make their own rules, are draining money from school systems, but the opposite seems to be true. In most states, charters receive fewer tax dollars per child than regular public schools. Yet they often attract creative principals and teachers who do more with less. School finance experts don't all agree, but I am convinced that charters are a bargain. So let's have more. That won't save money in the District, one of the few places that pay as much for charters as regular schools, but Maryland and Virginia would find more charters a boon if they dropped their suburban, aren't-we-great notions and listened to what imaginative educators in a few little charter schools could teach them.

3. Have teachers call or e-mail parents -- once a day would be fine -- with praise for their children. Some great classroom teachers make a habit of contacting parents when kids do something well. Jason Kamras, 2005 national teacher of the year and now a leading D.C. schools executive, used to punch up the parent's number on his cellphone while standing next to a student's desk. It doesn't take long. It doesn't cost much. But it nurtures bonds among teachers, students and parents that can lead to wonderful things.

4. Have parents call or e-mail teachers with praise. Successful teachers are often taken for granted. Struggling teachers need moral support. Both kinds would be fortified by a friendly message. They would also learn something from what parents say is working for their children.

5. Have every high school student read at least one nonfiction book before graduation. I am not talking about textbooks. Will Fitzhugh, publisher of the Concord Review, a journal of high school research papers, has been campaigning for nonfiction school reading. I was surprised, when I looked into it, how overloaded high school reading lists are with fiction. Nonfiction, with all those facts, is often more challenging for this age group. Good. If every English teacher substituted one nonfiction book for one novel on the required list, schools would improve without any extra expense.

6. Encourage teachers to call on every student in every class. Teachers who have exceptional results talk to me a lot about this. A lesson has to be a conversation, they say. Every student has to be involved. I have been in many classrooms where the teacher does most, sometimes all, of the talking. I imagine many teachers follow this rule, but it seems to me worth urging all of them to try it. It is, again, a change of attitude and method that costs nothing.

7. Furlough everybody -- including teachers, students and parents -- for an unpaid national reading holiday. This will never happen. But small experiments might work for some schools or communities. My wife will be taking an unpaid week's furlough soon with all the other employees of her company to cut costs. She will likely spend some of that time reading to our 2-month-old grandson, hoping the words soak in. If everyone set aside a day for books (or maybe, dare I hope, newspapers), we might regain a sense of what a quiet day of reading can do for the soul. Forgoing one day's pay would unite the country in something we haven't seen in some time: mutual sacrifice. (Those in thriving industries could donate the money to a good cause.) We could hold the national reading day in April, school test prep season, so kids wouldn't miss much. Free reading has always been my favorite frugal school fix. Even a few more minutes a day can't hurt.

If you have cost-free ideas to improve schools, post them on my blog at http://www.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle or e-mail me: mathewsj@washpost.com.


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