A look at really improving public schools
A column last week by State Senator Steve Fischmann lamented, “Everybody wants to improve public education, but nobody seems to know how to do it.” While Senator Fischmann made several very good points, he, like others, missed the big picture.
Let us take a look at really improving public schools. First, are the outcomes of our public education system acceptable? They are not, but for a reason not being discussed. We hear repeatedly that public schools are broken, which is not true at all. And that is really the big picture.
There are dynamics of success in public schools that go unnoticed by the media and politicians. Example: While some students prosper in our schools, others do not. In rough numbers, a third of public school students do well. Contrast that with a third of New Mexico students who drop out from their free education. And the middle third of students get a somewhat mediocre education.
The third that did well in school are often not noticed because they go out of state for higher education, and so local employers rarely see them right out of high school. Also, those going out of state for higher education often do not return to the New Mexico workforce. It is easy to lose track of them.
Therefore, it is fair to say public schools do get it right for some students. Example: The son of one of my friends maxed the SAT (1600) from a public school education at Las Cruces’ Mayfield High School.
No ‘one size fits all’ solution
In contrast, New Mexico prisons are full of public school dropouts who drifted into a life of crime after finding no success in school. These are the students of legend we see depicted in newspapers who cannot identify when the War of 1812 was fought.
So the problem with improving schools is to understand that some instructional practices are correct for some of the students, yet do not work either well or at all for other students. There is no “one size fits all” solution that will work in our schools.
Foremost, public schools must continue doing the right things for thriving students. Next, they need to improve what they offer mediocre students and really change how they address students who do not thrive.
For students not thriving there are thousands of large and small reasons for their failure, but we should concentrate only on those problems that a change in instructional practice will help. Namely, the single most important aspect of success in public schools involves fundamental literacy and numeracy.
The reason public schools struggle with some students and not others is that all students do not learn in the same way. Most schools resemble a factory that requires each student to conform to the teaching needs of the school rather than the other way around. Public school practice must differentiate those students who consolidate what they are being taught easily and those who do not learn with traditional methods.
Further, these ways of addressing the differences must be based on actual research, both theory and practice, for schools to embrace those interventions. Before schools change a practice they should be required to show the research that predicts better outcomes. No more “Let’s try this.”
Don’t try political solutions
I work professionally in the area of fundamental literacy and math. One thing is clear; the schools are filled with good professionals who want to do better. The problem with education starts when political solutions are tried for educational problems. Example: To improve student performance, threaten to fire teachers. This assumes teachers could do better, but do not unless threatened thusly.
Likewise, the notion that the problem is that teachers are not paid enough is a political statement. Increasing teacher salaries has almost no effect on student achievement because teachers are already giving everything they have.
Increasing teacher salaries does allow many teachers to only work one job instead of two. And it helps retain math teachers who can always get much better paying jobs. But the reality in the heart of New Mexico’s schools is that most teachers are there because they love to teach.
Listen to the teachers
Senator Fischmann was correct when he wrote, “Federal, state and local school officials are practically trampling over one another with programs to improve our schools. Unfortunately they are trampling over our teachers as well. Overwhelmed with an obsessively long and poorly coordinated list of standardized tests, procedures and programs de jour, our teachers have less time than ever to devote to the individual needs of students.”
The most important principle in our schools is that the classroom teachers have the best idea about the skills and abilities of each individual student. The more “experts” outside the classroom impose changes to practice without consulting teachers or against the advice of classroom teachers, the worse it is for students. That said, there are always improvements in the tools we can give the teachers. But most of all we must give them the correct instructional environment.
The state of New Mexico requires public school teachers to be highly trained, yet our leaders do not listen to them or value their expertise. Are schools broken? No, they are misguided, as Senator Fischmann points out.
The good news is that we can improve the schools if we will be smart doing so. Most of all, if we really want to improve our public schools we must never use political solutions for educational problems.
Swickard is a weekly columnist for this site. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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