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An Open Letter About Education


Edited 2019-11-30: tweaked the wording a little bit.

Education in the USA is in bad shape. Money is one of the few ways we have to try to fix it. But, we waste a lot of money every year on fads. We can get more impact per dollar if we deal with some well-known, well-research issues that students and schools face. These include:

Personally, and I admit anecdotally, I would add these:

Notice that one-to-one device plans, personalized education, computer programming as a global language, and other favorites of rich people (and companies that profit from these ideas) are not on the lists above.

True, one-to-one plans might be useful for students, maybe, if everything else has been satisfactorily addressed. Same with personalized education — I am sure that would benefit some, perhaps many, students, if it is well done. First, though, let's do something so that all students can start school ready to be successful and can come to school each day with a full stomach.

You might say "But we can do both at the same time. We can get kids good breakfasts and tablets". Never mind that what we need to do is address the reasons that so many students depend on school for their breakfast. Maybe while we are fixing childhood poverty, some researchers can get some data on the educational outcomes of one-to-one plans versus the outcomes for other uses of the same amount of money. Then, we can decide which is the better use of the money.

Let me explain some of the other items on the list. Inequitable school funding hurts students at lower income schools, which struggle to maintain buildings as well as attract and retain high-quality teachers. (Funny how that same argument is used so frequently to explain the sky-high pay for business executives, but no one has tried it with teacher pay. One tries to sell you stuff; the other spends about 7 hours a day, roughly 180 days a year, with your children.)

Lack of funding also means that schools have to cut back on field trips, electives, after school activities, and even school supplies (like textbooks, white boards, projectors, etc.). Students' families end up having to pay for some of this — such as pay-to-play for extracurricular activities. And, we are right back at childhood poverty again &mdash rich families can afford this stuff (but honestly, they shouldn't have to either).

Minority and lower socio-economic status (SES) students come to school with less exposure to reading and with smaller vocabularies than white and middle/upper class students. Making books more accessible and helping parents read to their children more before they even start school would go a long way to helping those children become higher-performing students. (I've recently heard that this conclusion is not as firmly grounded in research as we have beleived for many years. If there is doubt, we need to spend some money finding out the issues, and if there are maybe some confounding issues involved. In other words, we should get to the bottom of it so we can make well-informed decisions.)

Everyone knows that we start school far too early for teenagers. Teens know this; parents and teachers know this. High school should ideally start around 10 AM. Solid research into the biological needs of teens has shown time and again that their bodies are not ready to learn at 8:00 in the morning. Changing high school start times could have a beneficial effect, on their sleep patterns and health, at least, and probably on their learning as well.

Let's make the school year longer. Students in the USA do not need 2 to 3 months off for summer. This is too long a break, and every teacher knows that they are going to spend part of the new school year reviewing with students to make up for what the students (quite understandably) have forgotten over the summer.

Lengthening the school year would be a great time to improve teacher pay. As I mentioned above, if you want the best and brightest, the hardest working, the teachers who are going to have the biggest impact on your children's lives, then you should be prepared to pay them as if that is what they are. Plenty of great teachers work for too little now, but more pay would certainly bring in more great teachers and would help struggling districts fill all their open teaching positions. The thing is, many areas of the country have teacher shortages (at least in some content areas like math and science or in specialty areas like intervension specialists and ESOL teachers).

Sorry to say this, but some teacher education in the USA can be pretty bad. We do not do a uniformly great job of educating our educators, which may explain why teaching has a huge dropout rate. Something like 1 in 4 teachers will quit and move to a different profession within five years of starting teaching. How many bankers or business people study for four or five years at college to become bankers or business people and end up switching to something totally different within the first five years? My guess is that the numbers are nowhere near 1 in 4. We need to improve the system for teaching teachers.

Some people say But wait there, many business people change jobs in the first five years. That may be, but I've not seen any statistics showing that business majors switch entirely out of business. They seem to switch from one business or one business area (tech, publishing, finance, etc.) to another — in short they are still in business. Some young teachers may leave teaching for an non-teaching education job (textbook or online educational publishing, eduational administration, etc.) but mostly they seem to be going to totally different professions, professions that are unrelated to K-12 education.

Bilingual education may seem unrelated to all the previous points, but the reality is that there are a lot of languages spoken in USA schools. Many large urban districts have 30 or more languages and cultures represented in their classrooms. Yet, immigrants and the children of immigrants aside, many USA students graduate high school just as monolingual as the day they started kindergarten. Much of the non-English speaking world starts learning English in elementary school or even earlier. USA kids are lucky to get any global language before high school, despite the fact those students are sitting in classrooms where there might be three, four, or even ten different home languages spoken. Never mind that being bilingual has been shown to help intelligence and protect against Alzheimer's, if you want our children to be competitive on the global level, we should be helping them learn at least one more language. Bilingual education works well for mainstream and English Language Learners. We should be doing more of it.

I am fairly certain that no teacher, at a school where an infusion of money would make a huge difference, is going to have one-to-one programs, or personalized education, or teaching C++ / Java / Python as a global language at the top of their wish lists. What is missing is political will to spend the money we need to spend to treat education as the priority it should be. Teachers know this.

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