Five ways to improve our schools

Another school year has started amid more complaints by policymakers and parents about the state of the nation's public schools. The College Board revealed recently that the United States has fallen from first to 12th in its share of adults, ages 25 to 34, with postsecondary degrees.

More disturbing is the report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education that the on-time high school graduation rate for black males is a disastrous 47 percent (Hillsborough's was 35 percent and Pinellas a dismal 21 percent).

So what do we do to address these developments, besides wringing our hands in frustration or lashing out at teachers, parents or principals?

Here are our top five list of actions we believe will dramatically improve public education.

First, lengthen the school year. American students spend only 180 days in school compared to 243 for Japanese students, 216 for Israelis, and 200 for the Dutch and Australians — all of whom rank well above us in mathematics and reading levels. The three summer months that U.S. students spend away from a structured education environment have been a disaster for educational advancement, especially for the children from poor and working-class families.

Unfortunately some will argue that "there is no correlation between the amount of time students spend in school and their level of achievement." One only has to look at the length of the school year at the best of the charter schools in this country and the academic results of their students to recognize that the length of the school year matters significantly.

A major objection to lengthening the school year is the expense. It will indeed be expensive, but in our view it will cost the nation much more competitively if it remains locked into the same old school calendar.

Second, lengthen the school day. Public schools in the United States typically offer classes for 6½ hours, at which point students are released for the day, take part in school sports, or attend an after-school program. By contrast, European students who regularly outstrip ours on international exams attend school for eight hours, and they take a robust academic curriculum throughout the school day.

American students struggle with mathematics and science when just an additional 20 to 30 minutes each day in these classes can help student learning enormously.

When the bell sounds ending the school day for American children, many go home to an empty household, because both parents are working. Not surprisingly, these children spend 66 percent more time watching mind-numbing television than they do in school. The consequences are obvious for student progress and high school graduation rates.

Third, require ongoing mentoring, posteducation and assessment programs for principals and teachers to ensure that they are receiving the opportunities for guidance and advancement that they need to be successful. A constant evaluation system for each school and each classroom is fundamental to the success of children and to ensure the quality of the teacher and the administrator. In our view, every child deserves an excellent teacher, every teacher deserves an outstanding principal, and traditionally underserved students need both to be successful.

Fourth, require schools to engage parents as partners in this process. Some schools now require parents to sign a contract or a commitment statement. And teachers in some school systems visit homes to review the expectations with families and to discuss the academic progress of the child. Too many parents are disengaged from the education of their children. And open houses once or twice a year are simply not enough to get them engaged.

Fifth, adopt common national standards that are aligned vertically and horizontally to provide meaningful data about student performance at all levels. These standards will also help to identify those students who are ready for college-level work based on their K-12 preparation, and those students who are not.

The framework of common standards and assessments should lead to the identification and dissemination of best practices — a missing link in education today. These assessments, however, must be robust enough to encourage the teaching of problem-solving, critical thinking, citizenship and creativity.

So that's how we see it. Five straightforward, structural measures, none of which requires the fundamental alteration of the school curriculum, but all of which require a more substantial investment in time and in cost.

In our view it is time to stop talking about educational reform and testing students constantly. Let's invest in reforms that will enrich their educational experience, ensure their success in life, and enhance the nation's economic competitiveness. These five initiatives will do that.

David R. Colburn is director of the Reubin Askew Institute at the University of Florida, and Brian Dassler, Broward County teacher of the year in 2007, is principal of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Renaissance High School in New Orleans.

Five ways to improve our schools 08/29/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 29, 2010 8:22pm]

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