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Published in Print: November 26, 2003, as Ten Steps to School Reform At Bargain Prices

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Ten Steps to School Reform At Bargain Prices

Low cost school-improvement ideas.

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Low cost school-improvement ideas.

Reforming education is generally assumed to require thinking big thoughts. Consequently, many of the proposals under consideration involve significant changes in the way things are currently done and, as a result, are accompanied by large price tags and great controversy. Here are 10 steps that could be taken to improve American education that have received less attention than they deserve. Some would generate considerable debate, while others would likely generate none whatever. Some would require action by legislative or regulatory bodies, while others could easily be put into effect tomorrow. Most could be implemented with little or no additional funding and would result in improvement even when it is not possible to address other existing deficiencies. One, remarkably, would require no funding at all.

1. Hire only very well-qualified teachers to begin with.

Yes, this idea is simplistic. It is so obvious that it scarcely deserves mention. But many school districts make no effort to seek out high-quality applicants. And too often the hiring process involves no interview or tryout or screening of any kind, no contact with the persons who wrote recommendations, and no attempt to dig further into the applicant's background. The hiring process is typically not overseen by subject-matter supervisors because those positions were eliminated years ago. It is handled instead by bureaucrats in a personnel office, with the result that often whoever walks through the door first with a teaching certificate is hired. Communities seem willing to entrust the intellectual and social development of their most precious asset—their children—to almost anyone who can manage to squeak through college with a degree from what is frequently the least prestigious unit on campus—the school of education.

2. Provide systematic and effective mentoring for new teachers.

Teaching is the only profession where entry-level personnel are expected to do the same job and perform at the same level of competence as experienced practitioners. There is typically no staged entry through residency, internship, or apprenticeship. This is unfair and unrealistic. Every district should offer a multiyear induction program that provides systematic help and support, and this cannot be done adequately by another teacher with a full-time load who drops by when time permits or when a problem arises.

3. Reform the tenure review process.

Too often tenure is awarded almost automatically and without any meaningful review, frequently after as few as two years of service. This makes no sense. Tenure decisions are unquestionably the most important decisions schools ever make. Teachers shape kids' lives. A mistake in awarding tenure can be devastating, and its effects can endure for 40 years or more and affect thousands of young lives. But appalling as it seems, a tenure decision typically receives less attention than the purchase of floor wax or paper for the copy machine.

4. Make it easier to fire incompetent teachers.

Every effort should be made to help a teacher who is not performing well. Every teacher wants to succeed, and most can improve with effective mentoring. But some individuals clearly do not belong in the classroom and would be more successful in other occupations. In those cases, it should be possible to terminate the employment. However, at present the process has become so expensive, so time-consuming, so disruptive, and so painful to all concerned that the justification must rise almost to the level of a felony before most districts will act. Normally they prefer simply to wait for the teacher to retire. Meanwhile, year after year, young people are deprived of the quality of education they deserve.

5. Reorganize the school day.

The National Education Commission on Time and Learning was established by Congress to review the relationship between time and learning in the nation's schools. It held the same statutory authority as the National Commission on Excellence in Education, but regrettably its report, "Prisoners of Time," in 1994 failed to capture the attention of the press and the public to the same extent as the earlier commission's report, "A Nation at Risk."

The commission on time and learning reported that the nation has been asking the impossible from its students. It has been asking them to learn as much as their foreign peers while spending only half as much time on core academic subjects. Commission members assembled an impressive case for their contention that the traditional school year of 180 days, with six hours per day, is a fundamental design flaw in American education. They argued persuasively that school programs should be based not on how much time the student spends in his or her seat, but on how much he or she learns.

In recent decades, American society has piled onto the schools more and more responsibilities that extend far beyond the traditional academic disciplines. Many of these responsibilities are important and useful, but the net effect is to reduce the day in the secondary school, nominally six periods typically, to about three hours of instruction in the core disciplines. The key recommendation of the commission is that students devote at least 5½ hours per day to the core disciplines. Schools may also undertake whatever extracurricular, co-curricular, or noncurricular activities they want, but they can do so only by lengthening the school day and not by sacrificing the academic core.

It is important to note that the commission explicitly defines the academic core to include English and language arts, mathematics, science, civics, history, geography, the arts, and foreign languages. Some people forget the arts when they think of the core disciplines, but everyone who has made a major contribution to educational thought since Plato has agreed that the arts belong among the basic disciplines. The reason is that the arts represent some of the most powerful, most compelling, and most glorious manifestations of every cultural heritage. Nothing does more than the arts to exalt the human spirit and enhance the quality of life, and any student denied the opportunity to study the arts in school has been cheated, just as surely as if he or she had been denied the opportunity to study math or science.

6. Improve teachers' working conditions and treat them as professionals.

Many of the problems facing education are attributed to the alleged teacher shortage facing the nation. But as the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future demonstrated in its 2003 report "No Dream Denied," the problem is not a shortage of qualified teachers. The problem is a shortage of qualified teachers who are willing to work for the salaries being offered and under the working conditions that typically prevail. Improving salaries is necessary, but nothing will solve the problem without improving working conditions and treating teachers as professionals.

The fact is that more than enough new teachers are being certified each year. The difficulty is that teachers are dropping out at a faster rate than they are being trained. The key is not recruitment but retention. And improved retention requires improved working conditions.


How can working conditions be improved? Teachers need time to plan and time to reflect. They need opportunities to work with their colleagues to improve the curriculum and the school. They need time to observe the teaching of more experienced colleagues, and they need opportunities for professional growth. Most important of all, teachers need to be treated as professionals, not as hourly employees.

Successful companies treat their employees with dignity, trust, and autonomy. Unfortunately, that's often not the case in education.

The corporate world has found that success requires respect for the individual worker. Successful companies treat their employees with dignity. They trust them. They give them the autonomy needed to do their jobs. Unfortunately, that's often not the case in education. Virtually everything teachers do is circumscribed by law, regulation, or policy. This is true in matters of curriculum, selection of teaching materials, assessment, discipline, and on and on. No other professionals are so systematically restricted in their freedom to exercise their professional judgment. No other professionals daily face evidence that they are not trusted, that their competence is open to question, and that whenever possible anyone with the authority to do so will develop rules to limit their discretionary behavior.

Teachers should be allowed to play a major role in the full range of education policy decisions. Further, they should be freed from the trivial or irrelevant duties that now consume much of their time. The school environment should support rather than demean teachers.

7. Base teachers' salaries on their effectiveness.

Recruiting and retaining good teachers requires not only better working conditions and better salaries, but also a better system for determining salaries. Teachers' salaries today, normally, are based solely on their college degrees and their years of experience. Competence, excellence, and merit play no role whatever. The poorest teachers are paid exactly as much as the best teachers with the same experience.

This practice is so spectacularly at odds with common sense that it undermines the confidence of the public, especially the business community, in the ability of schools to allocate their funds wisely. Further, it provides stunningly perverse incentives. In order to provide better support for their families, the best teachers have to leave the classroom. They may become principals, but often they leave education entirely. Meanwhile, the worst teachers tend to remain because it's hard to find another job in which the incompetent receive the same rewards as the competent.

The idea of merit pay has always been controversial, and teachers' groups have generally been unsympathetic—often with good reason because it is easily subject to abuse and favoritism. Who will judge merit? The task is not easy, but it can be done by groups of professional teachers. The teaching profession is sufficiently mature to handle this responsibility. The idea has often worked when tried experimentally. It is clearly possible, and it is likely a prerequisite to meaningful long-term reform.

8. Establish a system of tiered licensure based on professional development.

This principle is being implemented in several states but deserves still more widespread consideration. The licensure system should provide more than a temporary license and standard license. There should be various levels of licensure, each of which should require successively higher levels of professional development. All levels should be linked to demonstrated mastery of teaching, and the upper levels should require experience as a resource teacher, a monitor of provisional licensees, or a provider of professional development for other teachers. Each license should be valid for a limited period, should be renewable based on specific expectations with respect to professional development, and should require periodic assessment of teaching effectiveness.

9. Make greater use of differentiated staffing.

With greater recognition of the value of specialization, education personnel could be better trained and more appropriately compensated.

Teachers perform a wide variety of duties. Their responsibilities encompass large-group instruction, small-group instruction, individual instruction, writing curricula, selecting or developing instructional materials, counseling, assessing student learning, using technology, providing liaison with parents, and so forth. Primary-care physicians, the closest medical equivalent of teachers, by contrast, are only one component in a complex array of personnel providing medical care. Their work is complemented by that of clinical specialists of every kind, surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, residents, lab technicians, orderlies, and others. Each of these specialists is trained in his or her specialty and paid appropriately. If primary-care physicians had to perform all of the duties involved in the delivery of health care, as teachers—with a few exceptions— have to perform all of the duties involved in the delivery of education, they would certainly be paid less than they are currently paid, and the nation's general level of health care would certainly be lower than it is.

With greater recognition of the value of specialization, education personnel could be better trained and more appropriately compensated. As a result, they would almost certainly find their work more rewarding. And the principal beneficiaries would be the nation's students.

10. Reform our own attitudes toward schools in speaking with kids.

How often have you heard a store clerk, a neighbor, or a friend say to your kid, "Aren't you glad school is almost over?" This may be idle chit-chat rather than a considered opinion, but kids learn quickly that the expected response is "Yeah, I can't wait." Or someone may comment, "I remember how I hated math in school," and kids soon learn to acquiesce in hating math. They learn that the best thing about school is getting out of it. Any day the school is closed is considered a gift from heaven.

Adults speak enthusiastically about Little League, soccer camp, or almost any other summer or nonschool activity. Suppose they spoke to kids with similar enthusiasm about school: "What are you studying in school? Have you learned about Lewis and Clark yet? What books are you reading? I used to love science."

Despite all our talk about the importance of education, in speaking with kids, adults regularly give the impression that school is more a minimum-security prison than the staging area for a successful life. We can't pretend that school is all fun, but education remains the most valuable asset that any kid can have. It's one of the few assets that, once gained, can never be taken away. We can't afford to allow the nation's young people to share the typical adult live-for-the-weekend mentality we see all around us when they will soon be competing in the marketplace with eager students from around the world who realize the importance of education and work hard at it.

We should all try to cultivate a love of learning and an appreciation of the importance of education on the part of young people. And this costs nothing.

There are many tasks that will contribute to the reform of education. Some of these tasks are large and some are small. Some are difficult and some are easy. Some are expensive and some are not. The larger battles must be pursued, of course, but at the same time, no opportunity to assist in the greater struggle to reform education should be overlooked or neglected merely because it is small or inexpensive.

Paul R. Lehman is a professor emeritus and the former senior associate dean of the University of Michigan school of music, in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a past president of MENC: The National Association for Music Education. He chaired the groups that prepared the national voluntary standards in music, the opportunity-to-learn standards for music instruction, and the performance standards for music.

Vol. 23, Issue 13, Pages 28,36

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