Recently, my principal felt compelled to share an article with his staff. It originally appeared in the January-February 2013 edition of the AAUP, American Association of University Professors and was written as a letter from a retired high school teacher to college professors everywhere: Warnings from the Trenches by Kenneth Bernstein.
You should take a moment to read Mr. Bernstein's letter because although I agree with every point he makes, I'm not going to summarize it here. Instead, I'd like to share what can be done to strengthen education in the U.S. I have spent the past 14 years teaching in both public and private schools at the upper elementary and middle school levels, so I think I'm qualified to share an observation, or two, or more.
Given a choice, many wealthy parents choose private schools for their children because they believe their children will get a better education. I'll come right out and say it. I think they're right. Furthermore, I want government officials to take a long hard look at what is being done in the private sector. If they really want to begin to repair our faulty educational system, there are a few things they must be willing to do.
First, spend time in a variety of classrooms. Get out there and see what's working and what isn't. Next, talk to the people on the front lines: the teachers, aides and principals who work with students on a daily basis. Ask the right questions, get them talking, and most importantly, take their advice. Finally, do away with so many standardized tests, and most certainly do not "grade" teachers based on their students' results. Instead, use standardized tests as just one of many measures to check how students are doing in the classrooms. Let schools and parents use results from those tests to guide their instruction. There should be no other purpose for standardized tests. Period.
What do private schools offer that public schools do not? They have lower student-teacher ratios, smaller class sizes, less standardized tests and offer an abundance of "specials" classes including: physical education, music, art and foreign language to name a few. Not only are these classes offered, but they are offered more frequently than I ever saw in the public schools. The private school where I now teach offers daily Spanish classes to students in preschool through middle school. The elementary and middle school students have both recess and physical education daily. They have music three times per week and receive art instruction twice per week. A multitude of after school and summer school enrichment opportunities are offered. Some examples are pottery, Lego robotics and individualized musical instrument instruction.
How do I know that smaller class sizes and instruction in a variety of subjects help students to succeed? I know because I'm in the classroom every day, watching my students grow and learn. I know because overall, they excel on the few standardized tests we give. And don't even begin to suggest that it's because we are selective regarding the students our school accepts. In both my public and private school teaching experience, the kids aren't all that different. There is a range of talents and abilities in every classroom. We modify our teaching as needed to challenge those who might be considered gifted and talented in traditional settings and provide extra time and support to those who have special needs ranging from ADHD to ASD to dyslexia.
Do we want the next generation of U.S. citizens to be prepared to enter a diversified and technologically advanced workforce? Of course, we do. So here are a few simple changes that will help to make that possible:
- Get rid of No Child Left Behind.
- Choose one standardized test that aligns with the new National Standards, and test students only once per year.
- Get the results back to schools in a timely manner so that the results are helpful for everyone involved.
- Do not promote or dismiss teachers nor fund or close schools based on those results.
- Require that all students in all grades in Everyschool, USA, have recess daily, physical education at least four times per week, and music and art instruction at least twice per week.
- Make sure that science and history classes are given the same importance as reading/writing and math instruction.
- Provide extra funding for technology to schools that do not have computers in every classroom and a computer lab in every school.