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How to Fix the Schools

By Marty Nemko

Imagine that Jeremy is your son. He’s entering the 9th grade but reading on a 5th grade level. He complains that school is hard and boring. He refuses to do most of his homework. He is starting to make bad friends and is experimenting with cigarettes.

You now hear of the latest school reforms: he will now be in classes with the school’s top students as well as its weakest ones. Standards will be ratcheted up so all students will be required to take a full college-preparatory course schedule, and each of those courses will be more demanding than ever before. Three hours of nightly homework will be the expectation. Will such school reform likely help or hurt your Jeremy?

Jeremy, except for the name, is a real kid. He’s the kid I’ve been mentoring for the past five years. And I’m worried as hell about what school reform will be doing to him.

And I have reason to worry. In the last 35 years alone, we have bet $3 trillion in tax dollars that we can improve the schools. Unfortunately, we’ve lost the bet. According to educational assessment’s gold standard—the National Assessment of Educational Progress—student achievement has barely budged since NAEP began measuring the impacts of the school reform movement in 1969. In international comparisons, American students score near the bottom among industrialized nations. Even our top students are now sinking compared with other countries’ best students.

As disheartening, the definitive study of the effectiveness of Title I, the expensive linchpin of the federal government’s efforts to help low-performing schools, finds that Title I hasn’t even made a dent into the differences between society’s have and have-nots—and since 1989, the achievement gap has actually increased.

An Arianna Huffington column cites newly-release federal statistics: “What we are facing is nothing less than an educational catastrophe, with 37 percent of fourth graders unable to read. The statistics get even grimmer when broken down by economic and racial groups. Sixty-three percent of African American children are functionally illiterate, as are 60 percent of poor children.”

Why Are the Schools So Bad?

Why have we lost our $3 trillion bet on school reform?

Some people believe that it’s because the schools need still more money. This is a view promulgated mainly by self-serving educators. Fact is, study after study has found that increasing school spending has not improved student achievement.

For example, a truly massive spending increase in the Kansas City schools resulted in no improvement whatsoever.

And the states that spend the most (New York and New Jersey spend over $10,000 per year per student) report among the lowest school achievement while the states spending the least (Utah and New Hampshire which spend just $3,000) report top achievement.

True, those states have more homogeneous populations, which are easier to educate, but the extreme difference in spending suggests that low spending isn’t the main cause of the schools’ problems.

Here’s what’s more central:

We blithely accept that millions of children consider school boring. We cannot accept that. Kids will not learn if they are bored. School cannot always be fun, but it cannot regularly be soporific if we expect kids to learn, let alone to remember what they learned more than a day after the exam.

Another part of the problem is the unfortunate truth that educational research is still in its infancy. Although politicians and educators won’t publicly admit it, we still don’t know what works—especially with kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds. In designing school program and policy, we still rely largely on conjecture and on flimsy research data.

Unfortunately, most educational decisionmakers don’t realize how flimsy that data is. They rarely have the expertise to assess the validity of research findings. As a result, like cancer patients desperate for a cure, educators too often embrace any program that sounds good—and many promulgators of educational programs are masters at making their program sound good.

Another reason why school reform has been so unsuccessful is that most education policy is made by elected officials: school board members, state superintendents, and state and federal legislators. As a result, the decision to support an education policy is heavily made on whether, as a sound bite, it’s appealing to voters, especially to vocal special-interest groups. Too often, politics take precedence over pedagogy. As a result, many school reforms not only don’t improve education, as this paper will assert, they actually hurt kids.

From watching TV specials on the plight of the public schools, one might think, however, that now, finally, the policymakers have the answers. Here’s a prototypical show:

Fix Facilities: There’s a shot of a classroom with a dripping ceiling. The announcer intones, “Would you want to learn in a classroom like that?” Our instinctive reaction: of course not. And subconsciously, we decide that we’re going to vote for that next school bond issue.

But let’s stop and think: Would Jeremy really learn much more if his classroom didn’t have a bucket catching the rain drips? Of course, all bathrooms should be functional. And it is nice for all schools to be attractive, but do we really believe that the many billions of dollars being proposed to improve the schools’ physical facilities would significantly improve Jeremy’s learning? Would it decrease the difference in achievement between society’s haves and have-nots? Is there decent evidence that it would? There isn’t.

Reduce Class Size: The TV special’s second segment urges the schools to lower class size. “Just imagine if class sizes were reduced from 30 to 20! How much more personal attention kids could get!,” the announcer enthuses. Buying the rhetoric promulgated by teachers unions eager to make their members’ jobs easier, one question remains unasked? Does the evidence suggest that lowering class size from 30 to 20, an extraordinarily costly move, make a difference in student achievement or emotional development?

A review of over 1,100 studies reported in US News & World Report concludes, “Smaller class size…could be a colossal waste of money.” In California, taxpayers have already spent $2.5 billion to reduce class size to 20 just in grades K-3 (not only to hire new teachers but to build new buildings to house the additional classrooms.)The result of all that spending? Tiny, real-world-insignificant improvement in test scores.

That’s not surprising. If you’re a student in a class of 30, you’ll get personal attention 1/30 of the time. If you’re in a class of 20, you’ll get personal attention 1/20th of the time. Does that really justify the enormous expense of lowering class size?

Worse, there’s a huge hidden disadvantage of lowering class size. To hire all those new teachers, California schools had to dig much deeper into the candidate pool—hiring teachers that otherwise would have been rejected. The result: more California kids are getting bad teachers. Would you rather have Jeremy in a class of 30 taught by a good teacher or in a class of 20 taught by a bad teacher?

To reduce class size from 30 to 20 would require each middle-income family to pay hundreds of dollars in extra taxes each and every year. Is that justifiable? Would you, for example, choose to spend hundreds of dollars every year on a product that seems to make little difference and on which the salesperson admitted there was little evidence it worked? Yet with class-size reduction, that’s what we’re asked to do.

Eliminate Achievement-Grouped Classes. The TV special’s third segment decries the evils of “tracking,” the practice of placing students into classes according to achievement level. The announcer warns, “Tracked classes create a dumping ground: “the longer that students stay in low-track classes, the farther behind they fall.” We reflexively nod in agreement, but let’s stop and think.

Consider, for example, if you were a computer novice, finally ready to inch your toe into cyberspace. Would you learn better in a class for beginners, or in a class liberally laced with hotshots who’d sigh at your pedestrian questions on how to turn the darn computer on and who’d beg the teacher to show them advanced programming techniques?

Most beginners know they’d learn more in a class of beginners. Indeed, a University of Michigan review of 76 separate studies of classroom grouping concluded that students, on average, learn more in classes that are grouped by achievement or ability compared with mixed classes.

Even more ominous, Brookings Institution Director and former Harvard scholar, Thomas Loveless, in his book, The Tracking Wars, warns that de-tracking occurs most often in schools with many poor and minority students, making our most vulnerable kids the guinea pigs for an experiment that is not supported by the research, and which logically seems ill-advised.

Would you rather have Jeremy, who reads on a 5th grade level, in an English class in which 1/3 of the class was reading in a 12th grade level? Or one in which the students were reading within one grade level of Jeremy?

Credential All Teachers. The TV special’s fourth segment documents that a higher percentage of teachers in low-income high schools are teaching “out-of-license”—for example, teaching high school math even though they didn’t major in math. Instinctively, we shake our heads in dismay: “How unfair.”

But let’s stop and think. If all the school’s math teachers were math majors—having studied the likes of matrix algebra, polynomial interpolation, and multivariate analysis—would that make them more capable of teaching average high school students? Would it make them better teachers of the students in a high school in which 80+% of students, like Jeremy, are still struggling with junior high school math or even arithmetic-- the case in most inner-city schools?

Many of the best teachers of the basics are not the whizzes but people who themselves had to struggle a bit to learn the concepts. They better understand what it takes to get average students to learn. Of course, all high school math teachers need a course or two in how to teach math to high schoolers, but they needn’t be math majors.

This logic is backed by research findings. According to a study by the Urban Institute and the RAND Corp, the test scores of students taught by teachers with probationary or emergency credentials were no different than for students taught by fully certified teachers.

Expand Head Start. The show’s final segment is on education’s most sacred cow: Head Start. “What could make more sense: utilize trained community parents to show other parents of toddlers how to provide enriching environments. Help during those crucial early years—what could be more sensible?” The announcer interviews educators and parents, all of whom sing Head Start’s praises.

We wonder, “How could any legislator vote against expanding Head Start?” There’s a reason. Shocking as it may be to the public, the studies have shown, again and again, that Head Start does not work, While some studies have shown short-term benefits, there are no enduring differences in achievement between children that participate in Head Start and those that don’t.

Even Head Start founder, Yale’s Dr. Edward Zigler, reluctantly admits that after 30+ years of research, much of it conducted by Head Start advocates, the program, nationwide, simply does not work. Yet politicians continue to call for Head Start’s expansion. Why? Because it sounds so appealing, it wins votes.

Assume that all five of the above reforms—probably today’s most widely advocated reforms—were, with a wave of a magic wand, implemented in every school in the land: every child attended Head Start, every class had only 20 students, each class had high and low achievers in it, every repair has been made to every school building, and all teachers had majored in the subject they were teaching. Would you bet $30,000 of your own money that student achievement and personal development would significantly improve for suburban kids? For inner-city kids? For Jeremy? Do you believe you’re more likely to win that bet than the $30,000 bet every taxpayer lost over the past 35 years of school reform? Back in the ‘60s, when school reform began in earnest, the pols and pundits revved up the public with equal fervor and with equally paltry data to support the massive interventions they were selling.

But what about those vaunted new model programs that have been touted on such respected TV shows as 60 Minutes and PBS’ s NewsHour? Fact is, the evidence that these programs are saviors is no stronger than for the previous set of model programs. School superintendents who have been around the block a few times are fond of saying, “A model program is one you haven’t visited.”

For example, New York City’s Central Park East High School was the subject of two adoring segments on 60 Minutes. Hundreds of educators then made the Haj to education’s new Mecca to see the miracle in Manhattan. They left befuddled—it looked much like any other school. Now, a few years later, they’re vindicated: Central Park East’s achievement scores are right where other public schools with students from similar backgrounds are. Just like the previous “miracles,“--Jaime Escalante’s class in Stand and Deliver” and Marva Collins’ Chicago school--Central Park East fizzled as quickly as it skyrocketed. Perhaps not coincidentally, Escalante, Collins, and Central Park East founder, Debbie Meier, have all left education and now make their livings giving 5-figure speeches on the lecture circuit. I got a real kick out of Marva Collins’ website:

This paper will present a more promising blueprint for fixing the schools. Why is this blueprint more promising than its predecessors?

This blueprint recognizes that our focus must, in part, be on long-term solutions, not short-term fixes. If we just continue with short-term guesswork-based fixes, we’ll likely lose our next multi-trillion dollar bet and lose another generation of kids in the process. Therefore, in addition to some immediately implementable recommendations, this paper proposes pilot-testing some new but unproven initiatives, for example, a completely different approach to recruiting and training teachers.

The second reason that this blueprint is more likely to be effective than its predecessors is because it’s being written by someone no longer a part of the school system. I can afford to be honest. You would probably be shocked at the strictures placed on discussion among educators and politicians. We live under a new McCarthyism: most educators, even those with national reputations, fear saying anything that doesn’t support sacred cows. Dare an educator point out that Head Start doesn’t work? Risk ostracism. Suggest that class-size reduction could be a boondoggle? You’re viewed as hard-hearted and tight-fisted, and the all-powerful teachers unions will line up against you. And dare you question THE principle: “All students can learn to high academic standards”? You risk being tarred with such labels as “elitist” or “racist,” which can destroy your career. A number of leading educators have privately said such things to me as, “I wish I could say that in public, but I’d be crucified.” This paper will attempt to be unblinkingly honest—describing what the research and logic indicate will best educate children, even if it might offend some readers.

The third reason this blueprint is more likely to work is simply because some of its ideas are indeed new. My colleagues feel they’re compelling. But some of those proposals are based not on solid research but on logic. That’s why I’m not, at this point, recommending their being implemented nationally, just pilot tested.

The final reason this blueprint is more likely to work is that, unlike many of its predecessors, it addresses all four major ingredients in the excellent school: teachers, curriculum, school structure, and kids. This book proposes think-big, curative not palliative ideas in each of those areas.

Better Teachers

I walk into classrooms, even in supposed “good’ schools, and I routinely see things that sadden me. For example, I walked into a room in a suburban school and saw “grammer” and “calender” on the chalkboard. “What’s the big deal,?” you ask. Kids are expected to make such errors. The problem is that those words were written by the teacher.

It’s ever more difficult to attract and retain good teachers. Before the women's movement, many of the best and brightest females saw teaching as the most ambitious career to which they could reasonably aspire. Today, however, we don't blink twice at a woman executive, doctor, or lawyer. Indeed, 49% of the law school class of 2004 is female. As a result, the quality of K-12 teachers has severely declined. We must think big: we must reinvent the way we recruit, train, and retain teachers.

Recruiting Better Teachers

How do our best and brightest choose a profession: prestige, money, and impact. The teaching profession too often fails on all three counts.

· Prestige. Which profession is least prestigious: doctor, lawyer, executive, engineer, or teacher? Right. It’s not close.

· Money. In most parts of the country, teachers usually start earning around $30,000, and after 20 years, have yet to reach the $60,000 mark—whether they are great teachers or marginal ones. Additionally off-putting to our best-and brightest, is that they’d get paid the same as a mediocre teacher, no matter how good a job they do. The final nail in teaching’s financial coffin is that in education, the only way to make more money is to stop teaching and start administrating. That’s ironic: if you're really good at teaching, you get promoted to a job in which you do no teaching and that requires a completely different skill set.

· Impact. Federal laws require mainstreaming special education students to the maximum extent possible, and classes for the gifted are being eliminated. As a result, a teacher can easily have a class consisting of disruptive, gifted, average, and developmentally disabled students, some of whom may speak Spanish or Hmong, but little English. Trying to meet all their needs is a Herculean challenge even for our best teachers. Most teachers enter the field idealistic, feeling that teaching offers a great opportunity to make a difference, and many leave the field within a few years, disillusioned.

If you were in college and could get into law school, medical school, get an MBA, or a job as a scientist or engineer, how likely would you to choose to become a K-12 teacher instead? Most of the few that do, leave within three years.

What to do?

Conduct surveys and focus groups to identify what actually would motivate top college students and mid-career professionals to enter and stay in teaching, Areas to investigate:

Prestige: How much added prestige would accrue from such changes as installing a salary-related career ladder for teachers? It could, for example, parallel the professorate’s: assistant professor, associate professor, professor, and master professor.

Money: What compensation is needed to attract and retain top people? For example, even if teachers’ per-hour pay remained the same, if teachers worked a more typical 8-hour day and 220-day year, teachers would earn $70-100K, enough to eliminate low pay as a reason to eschew a teaching career. That pay structure would also eliminate the many people who are attracted to teaching primarily because of the short hours and summers off. Requiring teachers to work a longer workday and work year would also benefit students—more time on task does bring about more learning.

Impact: Would teachers be more likely to stay in teaching if classes were grouped by achievement and if teachers regained more power to place too-difficult-to-teach students into special classes?

Reinventing Teacher Training

It is difficult to imagine why university professors rather than K-12 master teachers are the designated trainers of K-12 teachers. Most university professors are researchers, rarely master K-12 teachers. Many have never taught K-12 at all. And because so many professors are hyperintellectual, enjoy esoterica, and are more comfortable with data than with children, there’s particular reason to doubt that they are the best people to train K-12 teachers.

Doesn't the following approach to training teachers make more sense? Each school district should recruit bachelor’s degree-holding teacher-trainees for a program taught primarily by the district's best teachers. Each trainee would spend a few weeks in each of those teachers' classrooms, and after school, debrief with those teachers. The district would supplement that practicum with methods and theory courses, the latter perhaps taught by university professors.

The school district, after certifying the new teacher, would have to hire that teacher. That provides a strong incentive for the district to ensure good screening and good training.

University-based teacher training programs have no such incentive. Its main incentive is to fill its seats. No matter how weak the teachers they turn out, the university suffers little negative consequence. Its incentives are all for quantity, not quality.

The above model should be pilot-tested before being broadly recommended. A random half of aspiring teachers should be trained in a university-based program, the other half in a school district based program. Both groups’ students’ performance should be compared.

Assume that the above recommendations were in place. If we expect to attract enough good teachers as a result, we must stop acting like educators—who usually disdain marketing. We must undertake a marketing campaign about “The New and Improved Teaching Profession” aimed at top high schoolers, college students, mid-career professionals, and retirees. If the Army’s “be all you can be” campaign could convince people to spend years in the muck while risking having their heads blown off, marketing “The New and Improved Teaching Profession” should attract sufficient numbers of our best and brightest into teaching.

Better Curriculum

Think back to the last class or workshop you attended. How much do you remember? If you’re like most people, not much. And that was when you were an adult, you chose the class, and perhaps paid for it.

Now imagine school kids, especially the millions of unmotivated ones like Jeremy. They must endure class after class on topics they never would have chosen: European history in the 4th grade, pre-algebra in the 8th, or chemistry in the 11th. And each class is no mere one-hour seminar; it’s a 180-hour marathon. And kids have shorter attention span than adults. It’s little wonder they forget, let alone fail to incorporate into their lives, most of what they were taught.

Children have so much curiosity, so much energy. Yet most schools, even most well-funded suburban schools, have long managed to leach the life out of so many kids. One parent wrote, “I waved good-bye to my bright-eyed kindergartner. Now I say hello to a dulled fourth grader.”

And by high school, the dulling usually accelerates: geometric theorems, the causes of the War of 1812, the periodic table, the subjunctive tense, fat textbook after fat textbook—material that could deaden the most vibrant teen, let alone Jeremy. If you ask teenagers—suburban, urban, or rural--what they think of school, their most frequent responses: “boring” or “Why I need to know that stuff?”.

Think of how you feel when you go to a two-hour movie that you find boring. That’s just two hours. Imagine the collective frustration of the millions of suburban kids who are bored in school, day after day, year after year. The impacts are horrible for them—such wasted time and lost potential, such alienation.

The impacts may be even worse for low-income children. Most suburban kids have family backgrounds and peer influences that usually enable them to have a bad school experience and still do okay in life. That’s often not the case for poor kids.

Why do we continue to teach the things that even good students usually forget the day after the test? Mainly it’s tradition—schools change at glacial speed. But it’s also because curriculum is developed by scholarly Ph.D.s who value their discipline so much that they insist that every bit of arcana is indispensable. And because we would hate to appear as though we were defending low standards, we accept the scholars’ recommendations.

This is especially devastating to the millions of slow learners like Jeremy. By definition, they’re going to leave high school knowing relatively little. That makes it crucial that what they do learn be as important as possible. Until every student has acquired the basic life skills, it is elitist of us to insist that they understand non-linear functions, the electron structure of the elements in the Periodic Table, the pre- and post-Columbian explorers’ voyages, etc., etc., etc.

Lest you think I exaggerate, here’s an example of the state of New York’s objectives for all its students: “Students relate processes at the system level to the cellular level in order to explain dynamic equilibrium in multi-celled organisms.” Let’s cross the country. Here’s a sample item from the exam that every high school student in California will be required to pass: “What is the prime factored form for the lowest common denominator of 2/9 + 7/12.” That was an item rated as of average difficulty! Could you answer it? In your entire life have you ever needed to know this? Even if you’re a scientist, you probably will never need to know that.

Forcing all kids, even slow learners, to know such things—even if they graduate without decent reading, writing, and arithmetic skills--is what we’re endorsing whenever we nod in agreement when some educrat or politician calls for “high standards for all students.” Is that what you would want for Jeremy?

What to Do?

We must ask ourselves: What are the most important things kids need to learn? We must teach those first. Reading, sure. Number sense, yes. Writing, of course. How to use a computer. Sure. Appreciating the complexity of major life dilemmas, yes. Interpersonal communication skills, absolutely.

What might a reinvented high school curriculum look like?

Roughly ¼ of traditionally required high school courses would become elective, replaced by required life skills courses as follows:

English/Language Arts

Of the four-years of high school English, roughly three are currently devoted to the study of literature. One year of that literature work would be replaced by this course:

Language for Life. Using common real-life situations, this course would develop students’ ability to make logical and well-presented arguments orally and in writing. The course would also focus on enhancing reading of crucial material such as newspapers and magazines, voter handbooks, consumer contracts, employee and product assembly manuals, and how-to books.

Students entering 9th grade would be able to test out of this course and in its stead take a more advanced course in research, rhetoric, and in written and oral persuasive communication. Debating, mediation, and brainstorming sessions would be often used as vehicles for teaching these skills.


One year of the typically-taken four years of history/government would be replaced by:

Psychology for Life. Using common real-life situations and extensive use of role-playing, this course would help students develop new understanding and skills in such areas as conflict resolution, coping with anxieties, teasing/cliquishness, self-esteem, drug abuse, and sexuality.


One year of the typically-taken four years of college-preparatory math (algebra, geometry, algebra 2/trigonometry and precalculus) would be replaced by:

Math for Life. Many students graduate from high school able to solve the problems in the Algebra 2 textbook yet unable to deal with more common real-world math problems, for example, to address the question, “Can I afford to buy a home?” This requires an understanding of how to set up this problem, calculate likely mortgage payments, estimate likely income (after taxes) over at least the first few years of home ownership, etc. The Math for Life course would use common real-life scenarios to teach crucial math understandings that are lacking in a surprising number of high school and even college graduates.

Students entering 9th grade would be able to test out of this course and in its stead, take a more advanced math course.


One year of the typically-taken four years of science would be replaced by this course:

Information Literacy. The information explosion provides tremendous power to those who can harness it. This course would show students how to optimally use the Internet, libraries, and interviewing to obtain desired information.

Foreign Language

One year of the typically-taken three years of foreign language would be replaced by:

Career Exploration. Even after college, many people graduate unsure of what they want to be when they grow up. Part of the reason is that they are aware of only a small fraction of the thousands of career options available. Even fewer people have a good sense of what career would best suit them. It normally takes years to identify a well-suited career. High school is the time to begin the career exploration process. This course would not attempt to pigeonhole students into a career. It would expose them to a wide range of options, use various methods to identify each student’s strengths, weaknesses, values, and interests, and show them how to discover what careers might fit them. Non-college-bound students would be exposed to quality non-dead-end careers not requiring a college education.

Before recommending wide implementation of such a reinvented curriculum, a pilot test must be conducted with a random sample of students, half receiving a traditional curriculum and half receiving the high-relevance curriculum. The two groups should be followed to identify differences in 3R skills, attendance, crime, satisfaction with high school experience, college attendance, college completion, career attainment, and self-reported satisfaction with life.

School reform is going in the precise wrong direction. I believe we must reinvent the curriculum so it emphasizes the true basic skills—the 3Rs of course, plus life survival skills such as conflict resolution. Not only would students learn more and become more productive citizens, they’d be less likely to say, “Why do I need to know that?”

Create a National Curriculum

Educational leaders increasingly urge teachers to develop lesson plans locally. Why? Three reasons are offered, none of which pass the common sense test, and none that counter the benefits a national curriculum would bring.

The first argument is that local control builds teachers’ sense of empowerment. What that argument fails to recognize is that even if curriculum is developed nationally, teachers retain plenty of decision-making power. Teachers can impart their personal touch to lesson plans and they can maintain classroom climate as they choose—strict, nurturing, artistic, whatever. Most professionals have no more latitude. To feel sufficiently empowered, should physicians be forced to compound their own medicines and lawyers to make their own laws?

Ted Sizer, Chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, forwards another argument in defense of local curriculum: a national curriculum could lead to brainwashing the nation's students into blind conformity with the state's will. We must remember that certain conformities aren't dangerous; they're desirable. All kids need to learn how to read. All kids need numeracy. All kids need to learn how to write. All kids need to acquire basic scientific principles. All kids must be computer- and information-literate. If fear of Big Brother is a concern, the national curriculum could be recommended rather than required, but at least teachers would have the option of using top-notch lesson plans rather than being forced to invent their own.

The third argument forwarded in favor of locally developed curriculum is that children from different regions need different curriculum. That would only seem true at the edges. Hawaiian kids and Harlem kids all need to learn the 3 R’s. Perhaps we might want to assign a Hawaiian kid a little more Hawaiian literature and a Harlem kid a little more African-American material, but a national curriculum could easily leave room for locally important content.

Whatever grains of validity the local curriculum arguments have are greatly outweighed by the benefits of a national curriculum crafted by top curriculum developers. Anecdotally, kids, even in suburban schools, report being as or more stultified than ever in school. Even that might be borderline tolerable if kids were learning much more, but test scores don’t indicate that. And it's easy to understand why. Requiring every school or district to develop its own curriculum is like asking every homemaker to create every recipe without a cookbook. The food, on average, isn't going to taste great.

What to Do? Imagine what would be possible with a national curriculum. For every major concept, K-12, there could be a superlative lesson plan. Take the classic frog dissection lesson. Instead of killing millions of frogs, a high-quality interactive video-based course (too expensive to develop locally, but affordable nationally), distributed on the internet, would allow students to simulate the frog dissection. Click on an icon and you get a mini-lecture or demonstration by a nationally renowned teacher. A lesson plan would be included for the in-classroom teacher, including stimulating questions, group activities, and homework assignments. Why should 70,000 biology teachers each have to try to figure out a wonderful way to teach the frog dissection lesson, not to mention bring in and then kill 30 frogs per period?

An additional bonus: The nation is wringing its hands about the lack of minority teachers to serve as role models. There certainly would be no difficulty finding a few outstanding minorities to do the pre-recorded mini-lectures and demonstrations for these online classes.

Now think about the entire biology (or English, history, whatever) course. A similar course could be developed for each of those.

Importantly, this approach would allow for a degree of individualization impossible without a computer. Students could proceed at their own pace, getting more or less help as they need it. This would be invaluable for Jeremy.

The cost of developing master-taught courses locally is prohibitive, but not if there were a national curriculum, with course development funded by the government or public/private partnership and created by the best curriculum developers.

What would the hundreds of thousands of live teachers do if online master teachers were doing the teaching and directing the activities? They would do what they do best: provide the human touch: answer questions, provide encouragement, work one-on-one with kids, and develop the close relationships with students that most of us wish we had but few teachers have time to provide.

When we think about what we remember most fondly about school, it’s usually relationships. We must give teachers the time to build one-on-one relationships with students. I predict that if we freed teachers to do that, teachers would enjoy their jobs more, kids, especially those like Jeremy, would feel more connected to their teachers and to their school, and the schools would get a badly needed injection of a crucial ingredient in the best environments: love.

Just by implementing these master-taught courses, we would likely immediately and dramatically raise the quality of the entire nation’s schools.

Again, before recommending full-scale adoption of the above curricular recommendations, they must be subjected to careful pilot testing, for example, with students randomly assigned to a traditional curriculum or to master-taught courses. Then each group should be compared on how much they learn, enjoy school, etc.

Commonality-centered, not ethnicity-centered curriculum

Today’s curriculum tends to divide people. It encourages students to self-identify more by their ethnicity than by their commonalities as fellow human beings. Conventional wisdom still is that by teaching kids to celebrate their ethnicity, we increase the self-esteem of people of color and we all will come to value diversity. Unfortunately, we are learning that when groups identify themselves primarily by their differences rather than by their commonalities, severe problems occur, witness the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, Albanians and Serbs, and Hutus and Tutsis, for example.

One way to assess the success of schools’ current efforts to encourage interracial relations is to observe whom students choose to sit with in the student cafeteria. Walk into the cafeteria in most racially diverse high schools, and you’ll mainly see students eating with students of their own race.

Berkeley High School has one of America’s most liberal faculties and student bodies, and makes particular efforts to encourage students to take pride in their ethnicity, A PBS-TV special on Berkeley High School documented how the students had so balkanized that not only do most students self-segregate in the cafeteria, each ethnic group has staked out and named its own turf on the schoolyard: Africa, Little Mexico, Asia, etc. Interracial fights are frequent.

What to Do? In our schools and in the media, it would seem that we should focus less on our separate group identities and more on our commonalties as humans on the planet. We should emphasize our obligations to contribute not to "our community" but to the community and world we all share. If we are to slow our descent into separate ethnic enclaves, each with its "what's in it for us" philosophy, we need less pluribus and more unum.

Again, before implementation, this hypothesis should be pilot tested, with a random half of students receiving an ethnic identity-emphasizing curriculum, the other half a commonality-centered one. Which group ends up more tolerant? Less violent? Better able to get along with diverse people?

Provide English-immersion rather than bilingual education programs

Except in California, where voters have essentially outlawed the practice, Hispanic, and to a lesser extent Asian, advocates and politicians continue to press for limited-English-proficient students to spend much of the day being taught in their native language. That’s called “bilingual education.”

Those advocates point to children of bilingual parents who end up speaking both languages well. But most of those children have heard both languages in the home from Day One. Here, we are talking about what to do with kids who enter the schools--some as late as junior high school--speaking limited English. By then, it is difficult to acquire a second language.

If limited-English-proficient kids spend most of class time using their native language—which they also hear at home, in their communities, and on not-English-speaking TV and radio stations--it prolongs the English-learning process until the children are much older when it's even more difficult. So, it's not surprising that so many of these kids end up with poor English skills.

Now, there is evidence that bears out the common sense. A seven-year study of 11,000 New York City public school students found that non-native speakers of English in bilingual programs end up speaking worse English and with lower overall school achievement than kids who were placed in English immersion programs.

In an even more recent study, just two years after California outlawed bilingual education, test scores of non-native speakers of English have increased.

Some special interest groups advocate bilingual education because it encourages students to maintain a separatist culture. As a result, bilingual programs too often render students handicapped in American society. Not only do these students have weak English skills, because they spend much of the day with non-Anglos, they have fewer opportunities to develop the social skills to succeed in the mainstream.

Many of the special interest groups that demand separatist bilingual education programs are the same ones that decry their ethnic groups’ underrepresentation in the professions. Without having had the opportunity to acquire the crucial social skills needed to interact successfully with non-Hispanics, a person is at a huge disadvantage.

Of course, there is benefit in retaining knowledge and pride in one’s heritage. And as with previous generations of immigrant groups, home and church do a good job of that. But in public school, where so much needs to be accomplished in so little time, the top priorities for limited English-proficient students should be to teach them English and facilitate their ability to succeed in American culture as quickly as possible. That means high-quality English-language and culture immersion programs. Keep kids in native language and culture programs and we risk sacrificing their future in the name of a dubious political goal.

Better Structure

Reforming school structure isn’t sexy but it’s one of the most certain ways to improve student learning.

An Obvious Idea: Increase Time on Task

The research shows, and it’s only common sense, that the more time spent learning, the more that students will learn. Nevertheless, we continue to act as though this is the 19th century when we gave children the summers off so they could help on the family farm. Today, few kids must pull a plow. Many more children would be better off spending the summer improving their reading, writing, etc. (I suspect that few kids would agree.) And air conditioning now exists, so kids can comfortably attend school in the summer.

Yet the average school year in the US remains at 179 days. Compare that with England: 192 days. Canada: 195. Russia: 208. Germany: 240. Japan: 243. China: 248. That means that American kids spend 26 weeks a year in school compared, for example, with 35 weeks in Japan. With a difference like that, it would be a miracle if Japanese kids didn’t outscore US kids. There’s no miracle.

Now let's look at the length of the school day. The average US student spends only 5.6 hours a day in school. That comes to 1,000 hours a year or a total over 13 years of 13,000 hours. Only 70% of that time is devoted to instruction: there’s homeroom, lunch, PE, recess, etc. That brings us down to 9,000 hours of designated instruction time.

Even some of that isn’t used on instruction. Too many teachers don’t consider time to be the valuable commodity it is. They may routinely start class late (“We’re waiting for a few students.”) and end early (“Well, there are only five minutes left in the period, so you can start on your homework.”) Or they use activities such as “sustained silent reading” to kill time. So our kids get perhaps 8,000 hours of instruction over their entire K-12 school career to learn the ever-growing amount of material that we throw at them. That’s just 77 eight-hour days per year!

Students should spend 220 eight-hour days in school. With the involving curriculum described above, most kids, even Jeremy, won’t mind the longer school year. That must be our goal: to make school pleasurable enough that kids are glad it’s a school day. We must think big.

Restore Achievement-Grouped Classes

Imagine that you wanted to learn Spanish. Would you sign up for a class that had beginners, intermediates, and fluent Spanish speakers in the same class? Of course not. Yet, that’s how we increasingly group classes K-8 and even in high school. Do you really think Jeremy will learn more and have higher self-esteem in classes with high school hotshots, where his low achievement will stand in stark relief?

High achievers fare even worse in mixed-achievement classes. In the past, there were classes for gifted children so they didn't need to be held back while waiting for slower children to learn. Today, however, able students are now usually relegated to mixed-achievement classes, where they too often are bored, and spend much time helping that student who is—figuratively or literally-- still struggling to read Dr. Seuss. Learning to help others is beneficial, but too often denies able students of their right to learn. How short-sighted: a student has more ability so let's not teach her more, let's have her help the weak students. That’s a path likely to reduce everyone to a lower common denominator.

The common sense of grouping classes by achievement is supported by an impressive body of research, largely suppressed because of it would result in Asians being over-represented in higher-level classes and African-Americans over-represented in lower-level classes.

A survey of 1,164 teachers nationwide, conducted by the non-partisan research group, Public Agenda, found that despite hearing years of anti-achievement grouping rhetoric, 7 in 10 remained in favor of the practice.

Opinions are one thing, but what about data on the effectiveness of achievement-grouped classes? A University of Michigan report summarized the result of 76 separate studies on the impact of grouping by ability, and found that they resulted in higher achievement for average and above average students, and was no worse for below-average students. In short, mixed-achievement classes help no one. Even one of the nation’s leading advocates of mixed classes, Robert Slavin, in his own demonstration project, “Success for All,” quietly groups students for both reading and math!

So why are the nation's schools racing to abandon achievement-grouped classes and instead mix slow learners, the chronically disruptive, midrangers, and hotshots in the same class? Partly it's because America's religion is changing from meritocracy to egalitarianism—treat everyone equally, even if the results are worse as a result.

The move to de-track classes is also the result of what often happens when legislation tries to help a needy group: it becomes a loophole into which everyone tries to jump. US Public Law 94-142 introduced a concept called, "Least Restrictive Environment." It means that kids with learning or psychological handicaps should be placed in as normal a classroom as is reasonable. But special education advocates and radical egalitarians have widened this loophole into the Grand Canyon so now, for example, a 6th grader who is reading on a 1st grade level is usually placed in a regular 6th grade class. Imagine how that would affect you if you were in that class? The rights of one special-needs child now take precedence over the other 20-plus students' right to an education.

Done right, teaching is among the most difficult jobs: directing the intellectual, emotional, and social development of 20-plus kids at a time. Even physicians, among our most respected professionals, deal just with the physical health of just one person at a time. Yet with the current policy of having slow and gifted, well-adjusted and violent kids, immigrant non-English speakers and top native English speakers, all in the same class, we have created a classroom challenge that is nearly impossible for all but the most talented and workaholic teachers.

It’s ironic that many of the leading champions of diversity insist on one-size-fits-all education. The level of instruction must vary with student achievement. Obvious as that sounds, schools practice that less and less. The “Put everyone in the same class and insist on high academic standards for all” movement is causing millions of students like Jeremy to be taught material that is way over their heads. At the same time, it causes millions of bright students to be bored into torpor.

What to Do? Here, we don’t need pilot tests. The evidence is clear. We must restore achievement-grouped classes. We must, however, ensure that, unlike in previous incarnations of achievement grouping, that the groupings are fluid—students who show promise must be given an opportunity to move up and those who struggle consistently should move down. That way, all students are more likely to get appropriate-leveled instruction.

To help ensure race-fairness, particular efforts should be made to ensure that children of color are assigned to appropriately-leveled classes. To additionally help ensure that an elite is not created and that students get to interact with diverse schoolmates, non-academic subjects should probably not be grouped by achievement.

At the high school level, we must particularly think big. Our high schools, especially in rural and inner city areas, are filled with students whose reading, writing, and math are at junior high school level or even lower. Tinkering with the high-powered academically oriented curriculum isn’t enough.

We must think big--we must create a high-quality program for the non-college bound kids like Jeremy. It must not be like the dumping-ground vocational education of decades past, in which non-academically oriented kids spent their days in shop classes acquiring obsolete skills. We must create small, family-like career academies in our high schools, in which students learn real-world survival skills in the context of in-demand careers. For example, in a health careers academy, students could be taught crucial reading, communication, relationship-building, math, and science skills by applying them to various health careers. That concrete context makes the material easier to understand, reveals the real-world relevance of the material, and gives students an edge in landing quality, in-demand jobs that don’t require a college degree. Again, although this may sound sensible, this approach requires careful pilot testing before recommending national implementation.

Balance spending on high- and low-achieving students

On top of the regular per-student allocation, we spend additional money for each low-achieving student, and thousands of dollars per student on top of that if the student is one of the now 8 percent of all students identified as a special education student. A school district may well spend an extra 1,000 percent(!) each year for students with a severe disability—for example, students who sit and rock all day—with little expectation that they will improve significantly.

Why do we do so? Mainly, because parents of special education children and their lawyers are often relentless in trying to get whatever they can, without regard to cost-benefit. The lawyers know that the schools will usually agree even to outrageous demands rather than face the extensive and expensive litigation required by law. An additional pressure for the school district to capitulate is that it doesn’t want to risk lawyer-spun stories appearing in the media: “Hard-Hearted District Snubs Handicapped Child.”

These lawyers and parents act seemingly without caring that the legal costs and extraordinary cost-per-special-education student are draining resources from the education of students who could profit more from that money. For example, in contrast with the thousands of extra dollars spent per special education student, most school districts spend less than $100 a year on each gifted student, those with greater ability to contribute to society. It’s a myth that able kids “will do just fine” without special attention. The world is filled with unsuccessful able people.

Over the past 30 years, a trillion taxpayer dollars have been spent on extra funding for low-achieving students and schools. Yet many studies, notably the definitive study of Title I by top evaluation consultancy, Abt and Associates, finds no evidence that the money has resulted in greater achievement, let alone in closing the gap between the intellectual haves and have nots.

What to Do? Restore the balance in spending between those with the greatest need and those with the greatest potential to profit.

De-emphasize self-esteem programs, reemphasize grades

Among industrialized nations, American students score near the bottom on achievement tests, but are #1 in self-esteem. Conversely, Asian students score highest yet have the lowest self-esteem.

This is not a coincidence. If you have more than moderate self-confidence, it takes the edge off feeling that you need to work hard. In contrast, if your self-confidence is only moderate, you are at least a little worried that your work won’t turn out well. Your only chance, you believe, is to work hard.

Most successful people, when beginning a project, are usually uneasy about whether they’ll be able to do it well. This is even true of icons of success we’d think were brimming with self-esteem. For example, after his election to the presidency, George Washington wrote in his diary: “About 10 o’ clock, I bade adieu to Mount Vernon . . . with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, and set out for New York . . . with the best disposition to render service to my country, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”

I am a little uneasy as I’m writing every sentence of this paper. If my mindset was, “I’m competent, I can do this, no problem,” I’m convinced that my work wouldn’t be as good. I wouldn’t work as hard. It’s ironic that self-esteem, so often promulgated as the cure for low achievement, can cause it.

Because education pundits and pop psych gurus so heavily push self-esteem-building, teachers are ever more de-emphasizing grades. The argument goes, “If we give grades, we risk lowering kids’ self-esteem.” Yet common sense tells us that we need external rewards such as grades for our work. For example, if people didn’t get paid, most people—except perhaps those with unusually satisfying jobs--wouldn’t drag themselves out of bed in the morning and into the stresses of the work world. Yet kids’ “salary”—their grades—has been eliminated in many elementary schools. And in most high schools, the meaning of grades has been reduced--standards have been lowered so much that students routinely receive Ds, Cs, and even Bs, even though they understand little of the course material.

Though it may dismay idealists, few students study because they love learning, especially with today’s ever more difficult curriculum. They study mainly for the grade, and in high school, because some teens still suffer from the delusion that they won’t get into a good college without good grades. Yes, the nation’s 100 brand-name colleges are very difficult to get into, but admission to most of the rest of the nation’s 3,500 colleges is surprisingly easy.

What to Do? Conduct a study in which students are randomly assigned: half go to a class with no grades. The other half receives grades for achievement compared against a national standard. Which group learns more? Implement the results nationally.

True self-esteem doesn’t come from self-esteem programs; it comes from accomplishment. If a kid can’t succeed academically, he shouldn’t be given misleading praise or grades. Instead, meaningful activities must be found at which he can succeed. For example, I’d want Jeremy in a high-quality vocational program.

Teachers should, where possible, emphasize the positive, but not if it will induce unearned complacency or unrealistic expectations. I have heard too many barely literate high schoolers say that they plan to be doctors and lawyers, spend years struggling down that primrose path, and years later and poorer, realize they were misled.

Better Kids

Perhaps the most important ingredient in an excellent school is its students—kids who are bright, motivated, and peaceable. After all, that’s the main reason why millions of parents spend so much money on private schools that often have worse facilities than public schools and that pay teachers lower salaries.

But the public schools must take all kids that enter the schoolyard gate. Is the quality of kids in public schools immutable? Only if we once again fall prey to the American insistence on short-term fixes, and only if we rely on good-sounding but empirically disproven programs.

Good schools boil down to two things: good teachers and good kids. An earlier section discussed how to improve teaching. This section will argue that a generation from now, we can only hope to have good schools if we take the steps to ensure that the next generation of kids are better.

Four interventions hold real promise:

t Early Head Start. While the results of Head Start, the program for low-income 3 and 4 year olds, have been disappointing, there is more hope for Early Head Start, a comprehensive program for children age 0-3 and their parents. As with other promising but unproven programs, a high-quality pilot test should precede national implementation.

t Mentors. At-risk children whose lives have dramatically improved often say that key to their turnaround was a one-on-one mentoring relationship. If quality research bears out this contention, a national goal should be for every child, especially every at-risk child, to have a mentor. The research should assess the comparative effectiveness of different kinds of mentors, for example, peers, older children, young adults, or older adults. In any event, it would seem that to ensure quality, each school would need a staff member to recruit and train the mentors, match students with mentors, and resolve problems.

t Teen pregnancy prevention

Long-term, reducing teen pregnancy will likely improve the schools. A pregnant teen often has a hard time being a good student. The child of a teen mom is likely to be an even worse student. On average, the child of a pregnant teen is more likely to be born drug-addicted, premature and underweight, or to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, and less likely to live in a stimulating environment during the early years that appear to be key to school success.

Therefore, if we can reduce teen pregnancy we can improve the schools. No matter how nice the buildings or fancy the computers, if even 1/4 of the kids are slow in the classroom and violent or sullen outside it, a school cannot be excellent. Most teachers say that just one or two difficult kids can greatly reduce the entire class’s ability to learn.

Unfortunately, while nearly everyone agrees it’s important to reduce teen pregnancy, the fact is, we don’t yet know how to do it. Yes, the rate of teen pregnancy in the US is declining, but it remains among the highest in the developed world. And experts admit that there is no reliable evidence that even the most widely touted teen pregnancy prevention programs have caused the reduction. Only a tiny fraction of students have been exposed to pregnancy prevention programs, and the best studies of those programs’ efficacy have been unable to prove that they reduce teen pregnancy.

What to Do? We must prioritize research efforts to develop ethical, culturally sensitive teen pregnancy prevention programs that work. Yes, this is a long-term project, but if we are to maximize the chances that we’ll win our next trillion-dollar bet on the schools, we must abandon the American obsession with short-term fixes and think big: look to approaches that in the long run are much more likely to make a dramatic difference.

Promising areas for research:

s How useful are dolls with embedded computer chips such as Baby, Think it Over. That doll simulates a real child: random wetting, crying, etc. and keeps track of whether the “parent” attends to the “baby’s” needs. What are the most effective ways to use such dolls in teen pregnancy prevention programs?

s If and how best to use role playing—for example, those in which teens learn how to respond to lines such as, “If you loved me, you would have sex with me.” or “I don’t need to use a condom.”

s Is it ethical to give teens in schools with high pregnancy rates a financial incentive to not get pregnant? Is there a way that an incentive could be offered so it reduces teen pregnancy without the teens feeling coerced?

t Parenting Education for High School Students: Nearly everyone agrees that parenting, especially in the first years, is key to a child’s school success and, in turn, life success. And it seems reasonable that if we provide parenting education for high school students, it’s more likely that from Day One, they will provide an enriching environment for their children. To that end, we need to increase funding for research to find out what sorts of parenting education work best for high school students.

Promising areas for pilot-testing:

s A curriculum based on critical incidents in parenting: what to do when your baby won’t stop crying, how to provide an environment that encourages good oral language and reading skills, what to do when your child won’t listen to you.

s A high school-based parenting education practicum: Turn the cafeteria into an after-school child-care center which simultaneously offers free respite child care for exhausted community parents while providing high school students with supervised experience with children. What lessons could be learned from the pilot?

s What about teens and others who are out of school? Are parenting programs effective when offered in churches, adult schools, or housing projects’ community centers?

s Logically, it would seem that parents are particularly motivated to learn parenting when they’re in the hospital having just had their babies. Is this true? Does showing parenting videos in hospital maternity ward rooms, improve parenting skills? How about their actual parenting?

Educators are fond of saying that a well-educated child requires a partnership between school and parent. Research to identify effective, ethical, birth-to-age 3 programs, teen pregnancy-prevention and parenting education programs would go a long way toward helping parents to hold up their end of the partnership. Combine these with mentoring programs and there is reason to believe that the next generation of school children will be better indeed.


School reform appears to be proceeding in precisely the wrong direction: more mixed-ability classes, more education aimed at balkanizing us into ethnic enclaves, expansion of the sound-good but failed Head Start program, harder, more boring curriculum, eliminating programs for students with the greatest potential to contribute to society and dramatically expanding programs for students with the least potential.

Far wiser, in my view, is to do almost the precise opposite, and to add such innovations as teacher training provided by the hiring school district rather than by a university, high quality vocationally oriented curriculum for non-college-bound students, and a national curriculum suffused with material that students, even Jeremy, will care to remember after the test is over.

We all have fantasies. Mine is that this paper will serve as the starting place for discussions across America on how to fix the schools.

Dr. Nemko was senior author of California's procedures for high school
accreditation and program review. He has taught at UC Berkeley and been a consultant to 15 college presidents and to such organizations as the Educational Testing Service and Consumer Reports. He is the author of four books and 300 articles. His book, “How to Get Your Child a Private School Education in a Public School” was named one of the year’s Ten Must books by the American School Board Association.

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