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Education Reform We Can Believe In

By Marty Nemko

I've written dozens of articles, a monograph, and sections of books on school reform, reinventing education. Here's a summary of my current thinking.

Until career opportunities for women expanded, education was abetted, ironically, because so many women saw teaching as the highest-level job to which they could reasonably aspire. Today, woman have more professional options, so a smaller percentage of our best and brightest women enter teaching. And it remains a woman-dominated profession: Only seven percent of elementary school teachers are men, the lowest percentage on record.

Too, classes, reasonably, were grouped by student ability and/or achievement. That made teaching a doable task: With some whole-class instruction plus periodic breaking the class into two or three ability/achievement groups, for example, for reading, a typical teacher was able to provide most kids with lots of appropriate-level instruction.
Alas, today, political/egalitarian pressures have caused the replacement of most ability-grouped classes below high school level by mixed-ability classes. That has turned the task of meeting all kids' needs into a Herculean one, even for a capable and dedicated teacher.
Making teaching even more difficult is the more extreme version of egalitarianism that is also now the law of the land: Non-native limited speakers of English and special education children, even those with severe intellectual or emotional disabilities are usually placed in the regular class. That, of course, expands the range of student needs a teacher must meet. Thus the teacher is usually forced to develop mainly individualized instruction. Not only is that extremely time-consuming, it means that kids are spending much class time in passive seatwork, which is boring to many kids, and particularly difficult for active boys. And when those kids can't endure that increased seat work, they are often put on a Ritalin leash eight times as often as are girls.
Making teaching and learning yet more difficult is the political pressure to ratchet-up standards to absurd levels. The mantras are "All students can learn to high standards." "Everyone to college!" That's politically appealing but a pedagogical nightmare. Walk into many classes and you'll see teachers vainly trying to teach the intricacies of Shakespeare to kids reading on a 6th grade level, simultaneous equations to kids who can't reliably multiply.

The final nail in the learning coffin isthe central governing law in education today: No Child Left Behind. It imposes scary punishments and tempting rewards for improving the lowest-achievers' learning but none for helping above-average kids to live up to their potential. If that's not a formula for reducing our nation to the lowest common denominator, I don't know what is.

In sum, today, we have less-good teachers attempting to teach much harder material to a much wider range of students, and with rewards mainly for improving the least capable students. I can't think of a more perfect storm for education failure, for education to fail to be the magic pill that enables the U.S. to live up to its potential or compete with China, let alone to close the recalcitrant achievement gap.

My blueprint for education reform

I Recruit better teachers by:

A. Having school districts screen prospective teachers before training them, including observing them teaching a lesson.

B. Those who pass the screening receive a low-cost six-week summer intensive training led by master teachers.

That would likely yield far superior teachers in the classroom compared with the current system, in which
1. Universities screen applicants using criteria less related to teaching ability: GPA, GRE, and an essay.

2. The university-based teacher training program is more than a year long, expensive, and usually heavily taught by theoreticians who have never taught, let alone been master K-12 teachers. Many of them couldn't even control a K-12 classroom, let alone effectively teach and inspire most kids.
C. Make it easier for principals to fire ineffective teachers. Today, after a 2-3-year probationary period, teachers have their jobs for life except in the most extreme cases. Even if they're burned out, providing inferior instruction, or damaging kids psychologically, they're allowed to continue hurting class after class of children until they decide to cash in their generous retirement benefits.

The previous suggestions would yield better teachers not just because of better selection and training but because it would encourage higher-quality people to enter the profession. Most capable people don't want to be in a field in which incompetents are protected and in which the best and worst teachers receive the same pay and title.

II. Make it realistic for teachers to effectively teach:
  • Group classes by ability/achievement, at least for academic subjects.
  • Give teachersthe optionto send kids who take too great a toll on the other students' learning (disruptive kids, special education kids, not-English-speaking kids) to special classes so those kids can get more of the on-target instruction they need, while the regular teacher's other 29 kids aren't deprived of their right to an appropriate-level education.
  • Make easily accessible, on the Internet, fabulous teacher-ready curriculum, including online video lecturettes (rich with visuals) by the nation's most effective and inspirational teachers that the kids could use for homework instead of traditional homework, which too often gets blown-off, cheated on and, which certainly rarely inspires.
Alas, I fear that none of this is likely to occur. I believe that for two reasons:
  • Looking back on a half century of calls for major education reform, most change has been in the opposite direction I'm calling for.
  • Too many of the educators I've interacted with over the past three decades have struck me as timid and/or more interested in protecting or expanding their turf than in well-educating children.

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