As a retired elementary school teacher and principal in a large public school system, I have a lot of friends who are actively involved in education and who have given their hearts and souls to the care of the children they work with. Recently a small group of teachers asked me to think about opening a charter school. Charter schools are basically “experimental” type schools that receive public funding. To qualify, charter school applications must be innovative, thoroughly researched, and have a high probability of being effective. I’ve been thinking about what I might do differently if I could “create” a school and I have some basic thoughts I wanted to share with my readers.
- I would not operate my school under any system that required regular standardized testing or established minimum standards. Schools today have degenerated into “testing centers”. They are typically given a list of MINIMUM things they should teach that will be on a TEST. The teachers and administration are so afraid of these tests and the consequences of failing these tests, that they teach ONLY the test materials. Since standardized tests are based on minimum standards, teachers teach to the lowest common denominator. They work to assure mastery of those minimum standards and no more. Systems such as these promote low standards, low achievement, and bad teaching.
- I would not divide the school day into subject areas. Teachers who are only asked to “cover” minimum standards divided up into “subject areas” become lazy and boring. They tend to take the textbook and start at chapter one and “cover” the book. They are so tied to the textbook, they will use the questions at the end of the chapter to evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching. As a matter of fact, in my school, there would BE NO TEXTBOOKS. Teachers would have to fulfill the state curriculum requirements of course, but the materials and methods they choose to do that would be made at the local school level by the teachers, parents, children, and administrators working together.
- I would not divide students into “grade levels”. A child’s chronological age does NOT determine his/her ability to progress in an academic discipline. A six year old might be ready to read on a fourth grade level and do math on a third grade level. Conversely, a ten year old might be reading on a first grade level but could be understanding science at a tenth grade level. Why would we hold his kid back in science just because he has trouble reading/decoding words?
- I would not operate my school under a tenure system for teachers. I know that really excellent teachers are RARE and precious. I would insist on hiring my staff based on a shared ideology concerning learning and teaching. I would insist classrooms were run for the benefit of the children and not for the convenience of the teacher, and I would insist on full autonomy in firing teachers that were failing the kids.
- I would operate my school on a year round basis, with three scheduled breaks evenly spaced throughout the school year. No more month long periods of “reviewing” basic ideas after a three month vacation.
- Teachers would be paid a minimum of $50,000 per year as a starting pay. They will earn it and they will deserve it. (Keep in mind, I live in Alabama where the typical teacher makes around $35,000 per year. In other areas, proportional increases in pay would apply.)
- Homework would be assigned to the parents, not the kids. It would consist of a once weekly review of what the child is learning and how much progress the child is making. Kids who are experiencing problems would meet with their parents and teachers once a month in a formal planning session.
- Progress and promotion would be fluid. If a child was ready to study calculus at the age of 12, he/she would be provided calculus classes. If a child was not ready to move into fractions at age 8, he/she would not move into fractions until they understood the pre-requisites.
- The focus of education in my school would be LEARNING and not covering material. Teachers would be evaluated on how much their students have learned. Motivation of students would be the responsibility of the teacher. Children who are not learning because they aren’t motivated….would be motivated, not ignored and failed.
- Students would love learning.
Now I know there are a LOT of details I’ve left out in my little imaginary scenario of a charter school. How would student progress be evaluated? How would teacher effectiveness be evaluated? How would children logistically be moved and placed in a fluid system of learning? How would disruptive students be dealt with? How would mentally and emotionally disabled children be served? A complete charter school application would of course address all of these questions in detail but this is not meant to be a complete charter school application.
Kids today are not being well-served in our schools. We have allowed people who are NOT teachers to dictate how schools are operated and how individual classrooms are run. We have reduced teaching to a simple programmed activity with benchmarks, achievement tests, and minimum standards. We have hog-tied the best teachers and we have opened the door to marginal teachers. We have reduced teaching from an ART and SCIENCE to a simple activity. We must find ways to unleash our kids and their teachers to reach for the moon and stars. We must find ways to excite children about learning and education. We must find ways to make children HUNGER for more education, more schooling, and more learning. If we fail to do that, we will have failed out kids and our society. Thinking outside the “box” is not only desirable, it is necessary if we are to rejuvenate our educational system. Especially now that we’ve succeeded in shrinking the “box” to the point that it’s no longer relevant.