Over at Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham poses the following thought exercise: What would you do with $5 billion to improve American education? Great idea.
My favored reform, not surprisingly, is a national curriculum. That would cost about a buck, since it already exists and merely needs to be implemented. What to do with the other $4,999,999,999? Two ideas:
- Scrap existing state tests in favor of a random testing arrangement. If schools only know that they will be tested twice a year, but don’t know which day, grade, or even the subject to be tested, the only way to guarantee good results would be to actually educate kids. Keep existing state reading and math tests, if you like, but use them for diagnostics, not to determine AYP. Until the laws of human nature are repealed, it’s naive to think the current prep-and-test regimen will do anything other than narrow the curriculum, and stress the heck out of teachers and kids. If you insist on testing (and there’s no reason not to; as public servants schools and teachers need to be held accountable) then you have to have a testing strategy that encourages the results you seek. Random testing would also give you a much clearer picture of what’s actually happening in schools. But prepare yourself, it’s worse than you think.
- This one idea will make me unpopular in certain circles, but teaching in a struggling inner city school, and observing in lots of others has solidified my belief that nothing matters more to student achievement than a positive, productive school environment. In a good environment, virtually any curriculum or pedagogy will work. You could put Nobel prize winners in front of every classroom in a dysfunctional school to no good end. Use the money to hire teachers for one-on-one home tutoring for our most disruptive students. The vast majority of kids come to school, even in our most challenged schools ready to learn, but their education is sacrificed minute by minute by constant disruption and discipline problems. I don’t know of any data on this, but I’d bet that the achievement gap is really a time-on-task gap. It is hard to overstate just how profound this problem is. Vast amounts of learning time are sacrificed to discipline problems, and the need to organize classroom management around behavior issues changes the entire classroom dynamic. It turns the teacher into an entertainer, not an instructor. If a child chronically demonstrates that he or she is cannot participate in a classroom setting, that’s a terrible shame. But by allowing that child to completely dominate and alter the school and classroom environment to the detriment of others, we lose not just that child but damage 24 others. Educate that child at home on the school’s nickel, and you help establish the positive, productive, achievement-oriented environment that is a prerequisite of success. This by the way, is probably the real secret of KIPP’s success. Every kid is down with the program. If not, they’re not a KIPP student anymore. The best schools — public, private and charters, show they’re serious about learning. Struggling schools will not improve until we show the students who are ready to learn and fully invested in their education that they’re the most important people in the building.
Feel free to cross post your best ideas here and over at eduwonk.