Friday, October 7, 2005

Real Reform

A former teacher named Aaron Belz lays out his vision for improving schools in the U.S. Having taught in a pretty good public high school myself for thirty five years I found much of what he says to be worthwhile and, on the other hand, much to be completely impractical. Despite the latter, Belz writes an interesting essay though his five concluding suggestions for improving schools seem much too idealistic:

1. Campuses should be carefully designed to create space for thinking, writing, reading, and athletics. Classrooms should be open, comfortable environments that respect students as intellectuals in the making. Seating should be at tables or in a circle;

2. Rules for behaviour on campus should tend toward principle rather than specific code, and they should be enforced in large part by a student honour council. Rules should err on the side of giving students too much liberty;

3. Coursework should center on primary books, poems, plays, and physical objects rather than pre-fabricated textbooks and quizzes. As a general rule, no books should be used that later will be discarded as "only for school." Discussion - equal and open-ended, not Socratic needling - should be the centerpiece of each course. Practice (field work) is essential;

4. Subjects should be studied in much larger blocks of time - weeks, perhaps months. Inter-disciplinary threading is essential, so that students have a sense of holism about their quest; and

5. Assessment should be radically reconsidered, with the likely result of eradicating the alphanumeric grading system. Teachers must be given time to assess their students' progress individually.

I don't like to be put in the role of naysayer, but I'm afraid these suggestions would prove either too expensive, unworkable, or otherwise ineffective. As an alternative, I would like to offer eleven suggestions of my own for improving public schools. If we were really serious about having the best educational system possible here's what we would do:

1. Allow students to graduate after their tenth grade year with the option of staying on through twelfth grade if their grades and behavior qualify them for the extra two years. Most students in the bottom 10% to 15% of their class learn almost nothing between ninth and twelfth grades. These students are often alienated and behaviorally difficult and they frequently create an atmosphere in the classroom that diminishes the chances their classmates will learn and which demoralizes teachers. Give them the opportunity, if they meet certain standards, to get a provisional diploma after tenth grade and let them get out of school and into the work force. Little good comes from having them hang around.

2. Raise the driving age to 18. Nothing diverts a student from the books like a car (unless its a girl/boy friend). Raising the driving age will be an inconvenience for parents who will have to provide more of the transportation, but keeping kids at home rather than having them out wasting gas is worth the trouble.

3. Prohibit students under 18 from holding a job during the school year. Most students who work are trying to pay the insurance on their car and buy gas. The jobs they hold are often not the sort which build skills that can be translated into future benefit. Their work often doesn't even bring them into contact with people outside their peer group. Every hour flipping burgers or bussing tables is an hour away from home and homework.

4. Institute dress codes and enforce them. There is no good argument against them and lots of good arguments in their favor. Conservatives ridiculed Clinton for proposing that school's require student uniforms, but that was one of his best ideas. Quality of dress sets the tone for one's attitude about his/her role. Students wearing ties behave differently than when they're dressed more casually. We insist on buying our athletes the sharpest looking uniforms we can afford because we know that classy dress elevates one's performance and instills pride. That's why most coaches have their athletes dress up to travel to away games. But we let our students dress like exotic dancers or refugees from some natural disaster when in the classroom, and then we wonder why they don't take more pride in their school work. The argument that dress codes rob a student of his "individuality" is silly. Sports superstars like Michael Jordan and others had no trouble establishing their "individuality" while wearing the same uniform their teammates did.

5. Permanently expel students who are disruptive, disrespectful, malicious, violent, or chronically in trouble. Such students are a cancer in the student body and just one such individual in the classroom greatly alters the learning atmosphere in that room. Their presence is corrupting and demoralizing. Yet we refuse to remove them because the law says that taxpayers have to provide for their education if they're not in school. This is a ridiculous law and should be rescinded.

6. Encourage academic/intellectual elitism (as opposed to snobbery) just like we encourage athletic elitism. The idea that elitism is bad is nonsense. What's bad is snobbery based on economic status. Elitism based on achievement or values, the sense of pride in one's accomplishments and convictions because they're right and better than those of people who disdain them is a good thing and needs to be stimulated.

7. Hire teachers who are scholars. Not all teachers can or need be scholars, but no one who is not should be teaching the top 50% of students in an academic discipline.

8. Let teachers determine the curriculum or at least give them a dominant role in the decision-making. Administrators are managers, they're not educators, and few of them have much experience as teachers. Many administrators never read anything other than Sports Illustrated magazine or mass market novels. They're mostly good men and women, but they don't see themselves as particularly interested in developing their own intellects, and it's hard to cultivate and nourish student minds if you have no idea based on your own experience what such a task entails. Administrators should handle discipline, organization, and public relations and stay out of the academic affairs of the school to the extent that that is possible.

9. Don't let anything take precedence over academics in the school day. One of the biggest pet peeves of teachers I've known is that in many schools everything and anything trumps the classroom. Kids in the school in which I taught were forever getting out of class for pointless field trips, theater or band practices, and a myriad of other silly reasons. Yet a teacher could never take a student out of one of these other activities in order to insist he be in class. My school sent the subliminal message to kids that the least important thing they do in their day is attend class. When the culture of the school instills that attitude in students, even if inadvertently, a teacher's job becomes much harder than it needs to be.

10. Put a limit on how many students will occupy a building. When student populations reach a certain size they become too impersonal. Impersonal schools may be able to churn out students who are academically competent, but they cannot easily teach the virtues students need to learn to be whole persons and citizens.

11. Segregate middle and high schools by sex. Having young men in the midst of testosterone hyperdrive share close spaces with young ladies awash in a pheromonic miasma is no way to keep either of them focused on the eight parts of speech. When young men share classrooms with young women their behavior is often distorted, their attentions are diverted, and their focus is disrupted. Education would be easier and more effective if such distractions were minimized.

Of course, none of these suggestions will ever be implemented as long as taxpayers are content with mediocre education. If, however, legislators ever decide to make American public schools truly excellent, if they ever become interested in genuine educational reform, adopting any of these measures would be a big step in the right direction. And most of them would hardly cost a cent.

Hide the Salami?!

Howard Dean is always good for laughs at his own expense. The other night on Chris Matthews' Hardball Dean, in talking about whether the White House would release documents that might contain information that would give insight into Harriet Miers' suitability to serve on the Supreme Court, said:

"Well, certainly the president can claim executive privilege. But in this case, I think with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, you can't play, you know, Hide the Salami, or whatever it's called."

We doubt that "Hide the Salami" was the precise construction for which Dr. Dean was groping. In our recollection, "Hide the Salami" has very little to do with matters involving the White House, or at least it hasn't since President Clinton left office.

Howard Dean seems intent on confirming the widespread opinion that he's a buffoon. One wonders whether anyone takes seriously anything he says.