To the Editor:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s scorecard on leaders and laggards in public education is full of sound, and a tiny amount of fury (“U.S. Chamber Adds Business Viewpoint on Schools’ Quality,” March 7, 2007). Unfortunately, it doesn’t signify much. Grades may make people proud or depressed, but they just don’t say much about what works.
The chamber trots out the old horses of longer school days, merit pay, and abolishing tenure, apparently hoping that another lap around the track will make those arguments persuasive. They don’t quite get it. They still think that harder work, pay incentives, and threats will, magically, produce better results. They won’t.
Schools are complicated. There are dozens of things that can be changed, but few that make a difference. Here is a list of high-leverage changes that might do some good:
1. Develop a serious, districtwide intervention system that addresses inappropriate social behavior and poor learning habits.
2. Develop an effective, frequent feedback system that not only provides useful data, but also quickly alerts teachers and students when an idea has not been “mastered.” Teachers can then focus on real learning, instead of bartering paper-based work for a grade.
3. Create a guaranteed, viable curriculum. Stop the mile-wide and inch-deep test-prep curriculum. Students need to engage the material and make personal meaning out of it. This isn’t done by racing through the garden.
4. Make helping teachers become educational experts and leaders a priority—a value that is acknowledged and highlighted. Artful teachers engage and inspire students. Expert teachers should not be taken out of the classroom. They should, however, be given time to share their expertise with others.
5. Emphasize literacy. Most student failure is connected to poor or careless or indifferent reading skills and habits. Though a great deal is known about literacy, many teachers are not skilled at teaching it.
6. Educate all students. This means rethinking how school systems are organized to engage students with varying interests, backgrounds, and values.
Notice that the list centers on the classroom almost exclusively. That’s where the action is. That’s where high-leverage change can make a difference. Without it, reform turns out to be little more than changing the color of hubcaps while revving up the engine of politics and blame.
Mattoon High School
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Opposing U.S. Chamber’s Prescriptions for Schools