Fixing education – doesn’t require Superman

There's a lot of buzz about the eagerly awaited documentary "Waiting for Superman" by Davis Guggenheim.  Set to debut on Sept 24th, already many have had a chance to see the pre-release screenings.

In last week's Time Magazine article "A Call to Action for Public Schools," journalist Amanda Ripley wrote about the background info that's chronicled in the movie.

I'm not going to go into details about the movie at this point -- I haven't personally seen it. However, I did find many of Ms. Ripley's statistics cited in her articleand observations about the movie as quite interesting -- particularly as I've been saying the same thing for years.

I've just come off a whirlwind speaking tour, having presented 12 speeches in 2 states over three days.  (Am I on the campaign trail?)  By conservative estimates by some of the committee folks who were responsible for getting me there, I probably spoke to over 1500 students in two days, and hundreds of adults -- educators, administrators, political leaders and the general public.  In my presentation "Overcoming Failure to Educate" I go into detail about the problems in education and how they are all related to a common cause -- one that no one really wants to deal with.

Among the issues I discuss is that our classroom sizes have steadily decreased in the past 30-40 years.  Spending has increased dramatically on education during the same time -- which flies in the face of the "we need more money" argument, doesn't it?  Yet, what's happened to academic achievement?  Amanda Ripley's article sidebar illustrates this boldly:

  • 16:1 - student-to-teacher ratio in 2007, compared to 22:1 in 1970
  • 123% increase in per-pupil education spending in the US from 1971-2006
  • 0% Change in academic performance among 17-year olds from 1971 to 2004 in a national test for reading

While the statistics are the same and the examples of the problems in education, our conclusions are not.  Ms. Ripley states that the movie ("Waiting for Superman") "succeeds because it lays out the solutions, something no one could credibly attempt to do until very recently."

There I disagree. We HAVE the ability to solve this problem, and the credibility to show how it can be done.  Now.  Without extra money, without extra time. The article seems to suggest that the movie has hit upon it -- charter schools?  We've heard this before.  Yet, we know charter schools are not the be-all and end-all. As many fail as succeed. And, regardless of whether charter schools can serve an increasing number of students through extra financial and community support, there are still any number of students for whom the "run of the mill" public school is the ONLY option. We owe them an excellent education as well.

I keep going back to it: why doesn't ANYONE connect the dots and see that if we don't deal with classroom management, disruption, student violence and so many other "ills" at the root cause, we'll never make an appreciable dent in the problems plaguing education. Everyone dances around it: Ms. Ripley shares a chart in which the question of "What will improve student performance the most" has 24% of the respondents answering "More effective teachers."  Good, but when asked "What will improve teacher effectiveness the most?" 30% say "better mentoring by more-experienced teachers" and another 30% say "better training in universities." But, the big piece of "how about the students" is missing and how they contribute or detract from classroom effectiveness.

I point this out in one of my slides -- I show that the natural "solution" to "more effective classrooms" tends to be "better education in classroom management." True, partly. Which dovetails with Ms. Ripley's chart where "better training" comes in.  Many teachers are never even TAUGHT effective classroom management techniques. But, even if they are, it assumes that the students have the capacity and developmental capabilities to be managed. And that's the part that is missing.  You have to address the problem at both ends in order to solve it.

According to a poll conducted by Time for this article, 67% of the 1,000 adults surveyed believe our schools are in crisis.  Of that, 90% believe it's possible to make changes in public schools that will dramatically improve student performance. But, if you looked at the responses about what policy changes could be made to support a better academic system, not a single one mentioned classroom management/discipline/social skills education.

I would welcome an opportunity to share this information as broadly as Superman is getting play.  I will maintain that it doesn't take Superman to make these drastic changes. And, as I said, it doesn't take more time; it won't take more money. It'll address multiple problems with a comprehensive solution that will allow us to spend the appropriate time/energy/money on the exceptions, instead of, as I've been quoted in the media "playing whack a mole with the latest issue to raise its head."

What DOES it take? An enlightened community, education administration...even the media that is willing and brave enough to look at things in a slightly different way. They are out there, but not enough.  Hey, I've been in Time Magazine once before...maybe it's time for a repeat?

"Dramatically improving student performance" is a goal that can be achieved, now, today in all of our communities.  It doesn't take a Man of Steel, as I've said, but it takes people not afraid to ask the right questions and be honest about wanting real solutions. Otherwise the same issue will be Kryptonite and public education will continue to fail.

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  1. Kendra Grant says:

    While I agree that discipline is important in school (I started my career as a Behavior Contact Teacher in Middle School) I’d have to argue that if teachers don’t build positive relationships with their students, any discipline program implemented will be ineffective.

    Beyond relationship building I see two areas that need to change:
    1.  Move the focus away from data collecting and testing to assessment and learning
    2. Provide technology to support all learners and implement UDL principles. 

    When we make school about inquiry, thinking and communicating with information AND we provide the technology to support all students access to and processing of information, you’ll have less students acting out as their learning needs will be met.  As it is now, if you don’t have the reading, writing and memory skills to do well on a test there isn’t much left to do but act out.  Even with the best classroom management if the focus is on getting through the content to prepare for the test, students continue to be unmotivated, bored, act out or drop out.  Doubly so if they know they are going to fail.

    If we keep testing kids but their scores have remained the same for over 30 years, then perhaps its time to move beyond testing and data collection and look at real changes that will impact students and learning.

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