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School Choice & Charters Opinion

Priorities for a Progressive Education Agenda

By Joe Nathan — May 21, 2015 7 min read
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Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan describe their priorities for a progressive education agenda. Joe begins and Deb responds.

Deb, here are several key priorities that I think ought to be part of a local, state and national progressive agenda.

  • Help virtually all students participate yearly on one or more projects that combine classroom work and community service. When done well, these projects help improve the community, help young people see the relationships between academics and the world outside the school, and help convince young people that they can make a positive difference. As you may remember, I taught several such classes at the K-12 and higher ed levels. In one, students successfully challenged three polluting companies. In another, students resolved more than 80% of hundreds of consumer problems adults referred to them. What Kids Can Do is a great resource on this. So is the National Youth Leadership Council.
  • Transform school buildings into community schools, where social service agencies and other groups work together to help learn from and serve students and families. The Coalition of Community Schools has considerable research about why and how to do this. Our Center’s report on such schools is available here.
  • Increase the range of valid/reliable assessments that schools, districts along with state and federal policy-makers use to assess student and school progress. We worked with several assessment authorities and educators to produce a report suggesting six vital and three valuable components of a strong assessment program. Along with standardized tests, a strong program would include things like the Performance Assessments developed in New York and the Hope Survey developed here and Kansas.
  • Provide more state funds for public schools (district or charter) serving high percentages of students from low-income families. Ideally schools serving mostly low-income students would receive somewhat more than schools serving the most affluent students. While more money is not the full solution, well spent it can provide a broader, higher quality range of opportunities and programs for students.
  • Insure that every youngster from a low income or limited-non English speaking family, and every family, has access to research-based early childhood programs. Some early childhood programs have far more long run positive impact. Key characteristics include working skillfully with the family, and working with the student for several years. Longitudinal research by the University of Minnesota’s Professor Arthur Reynolds helps illustrate this.
  • Re-arrange high schools so that virtually all students are earning college credit, whether traditional academic or more applied career and technical areas, or both, before graduating. Education Commission of the States has summarized this research, as has our Center, as part of work we’ve done to increase dual enrollment participation by low income students in Minnesota. Considerable research shows students, especially those from low income families who earn college credit while in high school are more likely to graduate from high school, enter and graduate from some form of higher education.
  • Increase the number of strong district and chartered public schools open to all that families can choose, deloped by educators, families and community groups. Provide startup funds to help create new district and chartered options, including the opportunity to create teacher led schools. Provide opportunities to replicate or expand successful ones (as happened with Central Park East, a district option, and Yes Prep, a charter option).
  • Develop better ways to increase financial transparency and dramatically reduce fraud and theft that occurs in some district and chartered public schools.
  • Provide opportunities for the most effective public schools to create teacher and administrator preparation programs. This has happened for example with Rhode Island and the New York/New Jersey area.
  • Build collaborations among district and charter public schools willing to work together for important student and family needs (such as the one mentioned immediately above)
  • Listen to and learn from a new generation of leaders from a variety of racial and economic communities.
  • View diversity as a strength and asset
  • Share positive results with the general public of efforts such as those cited above, whether from district or chartered schools. The general public needs to be more informed about things that are helping students. Hope helps.
  • Develop partnerships with organizations working to expand health care, increase number of good jobs, increase affordable housing, and advocate with/for low-income families. While schools can have huge positive impacts, reducing the other actions can help schools become more effective. As an example, the organization where I work admires and collaborates with a terrific Minnesota research/advocacy group called Growth & Justice.
  • Increase federal income taxes on the wealthiest 5-10% of Americans, to help pay for a number of things cited above.

These strategies seem to me to offer the best chances of helping make this a more equitable, just country. They ought to help reduce income inequality. Our Center is working on many of these. Opportunity, justice, freedom, learning, respect and hope are central to these priorities.

Deborah Meier responds:

Dear Joe, I think I like most--especially that last one. But my list would look very different, while not in conflict. Many of yours seem to me should be decided by the professionals in each school in collaboration with the community. My nine are designed to be “required”. Shall we talk about why we lay these out so differently?

1. Every kid and very family should be known well by at least one fulltime member of the school’s faculty. For this purpose time must be set aside for meeting regularly with families; it also requires legislation that frees families to meet and to visit the schools their children attend several times a year during working hours--without loss of pay.

2. No classroom teacher K-5/6 shall have more than 22 students for whom she/he is responsible.

3. All K-5/6 schools will have music and visual arts teachers so that children will have 4-5 hours a week of art support. Provision will also exist for daily physical education--recess and planned physical activity for 45 minute a day.

4. No 6/7-12 teacher will be responsible for more than 80 students total, and will be advisor to up to 20 of them. It shall be the advisor’s task to maintain regular contact with families, meet several times a year (see K-6 above).

5. That teachers will be licensed so as to be able to teach intra-disciplinary and interdisciplinary courses. (This can help reduce student load.)

6. K-12 teachers will have a minimum of ten paid hours a week for individual and group planning time, as well as 2-days paid time before school starts or at the end of the school year to plan together for the year’s program, including professional development.

7. That all professional staff have a minimum of 2 days off during the school year for approved professional development which can include conferences or visitations to other schools or even to observe in their own school.

8. That all schools will have a governance structure that includes a voting voice for representatives of the parents, teachers as well as others belonging to the larger community--in equal number. Choice of principal must be approved by a majority of all three constituents--and students if a school chooses to add such a constituent body. They also will have a voice on matters of schedule (days, not within the day), use of the budget and hiring/firing, although how this will be worked out will be up to each school and determine the form of assessment best suited to their school and community.

What lies behind these 8? A view of teaching and learning that involves democracy (a meaningful role by all adults constituents, valuing the exercise of wise human judgment (which requires time for normal on-going professional development), and the importance of trustworthy personal relationships (which speaks to class size, faculty/family relationships, etc. and a full and rich view of human potential. Each of the nine is addressed to one or more of these bottom line requirements. I left out school size...but...that might be #9. The school as part of the community’s infrastructure--might be #10.

Joe responds: While there is some overlap, there are many differences. So yes, I look forward to continued discussion, and hopefully, feedback/reactions from readers.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.