Heather Wolpert-Gawron

How do we “Fix the Schools?”

By on January 10, 2010

Ellen Berg, my colleague in The Teacher Leaders asked this very simple question the other day. I had so much fun in answering and I believe so deeply in the power of this simple question that I wanted to share my comment and throw the question out to my readers. I believe in teachers, and I believe that the only way schools can be “fixed” is to have our voices at the table. And just as many times science has its infancy in science fiction, perhaps the answer to this question lies in educational-fiction first.

So think about it. Pretend budget isn’t an issue. Pretend there are no barriers. Fantasize away. Here are just some of my la-la-land dreams for fixing the schools:

1. Project-based learning on solving community needs. That is, set the students to the tasks ahead of them in the future. What are the local community needs? The global community needs? How do we solve them?

2. Future Necessary Skills Should Help Drive Curriculum. Look at the lists of skills students will need years from now and have that help direct curriculum. Collaboration, communication, Goal-setting, Time Management, Writing, Follow Through, etc…

3. There should be online vs. offline choice. And not just 100% of the time. Much like higher ed, students should be able to choose whether they want a face2face class or an online class that they can take at during different hours of the day. They could have a 60% campus schedule, 40% online if they prefer. Mix it up. Phone companies and Dell & Mac are in cahoots with local schools to provide equipment and service to each district household.

4. Flexible School Times. 8:00-3:00 is antiquated. Allow students to determine parts of their schedule to be later then that. After all, their sleep patterns are such that some do better from 10:00-5:00,so why not accommodate that need for those who want it?

5. Offer Elective Internships. On the job training. I once heard that on a movie the only two people who know everything are the producer and the production assistant because everyone works for the producer and the assistant works for everyone. Allow a student to intern somewhere and be given access to the real learning. Back on campus, there should be more guest speakers from different careers that routinely make appearances. Maybe a time slot every month for a different representative to come and speak.

6. Tie in schools more heavily to Ed Credential Programs. My liberal arts college’s ed program was heavily tied into one school and allowed students access to the classrooms whenever they wanted. It made for teachers who were always modeling for both students and teachers, and addressed the ratio issue. If I had an eager TFAer in my classroom as support rather than as the actual teacher, I bet it would be great. When I think of the school tied into the UCLA elementary program, it’s one of the best in our city.

7. Adjust Our Rubrics to Reflect the Ability to Communicate Content, Not Just Knowledge of Content. “Able to Teach” should be the highest possible achievement on a classroom’s rubric. After all, it elevates the respect for teaching in the classroom and says that to communicate an idea is as important as understanding the concept in isolation.

8. Provide adult ed classes. I think schools need to be more involved in community needs. We’re schools. Perhaps we need to broaden our goals from “teaching ALL students” to “providing education to ALL.” Imagine the power of a parent having a class in Room 1 at night, coming home to their student whose elective is also in that room during the day. The school would become a more common language in the community.

9. Green the schools. I don’t necessarily mean make them all solar powers, although that would be cool. I mean, literally, there needs to be green on campus. I’ve posted about this in the past in my article “Extreme Makeover: Classroom Edition.” There must be trees to read under, fields to run on during PE, maybe even a plant or two in the classrooms. There should be gardens the science classes are growing. It’s about oxygen, it’s about respect and pride in your learning environment, it’s about moving away from our prison system decor and into a more college-like atmosphere.

10. Provide Finding for Classroom Libraries. Every class should have a classroom library. As I’ve written in my earlier post, “The Importance of a Classroom Library,” I believe every subject, at every level, should have a library that reflects the interests of the classroom teacher and the students. You want literacy in your school? Offer it. Everywhere they look. Make it unavoidable and undeniably accessible.
11. Develop Better Assessments. There should still be assessments. Assessments that compare students to each other are important. But that should be given the same weight as assessments that compare a student to himself. Growth should be given as much credit as level.

12. Keep the Standards, but...Our standards shouldn’t be the goal, but the foundation of our curriculum.

13. Use Brain Development Data. Just as we use test data to drive curriculum, we should also be using brain data. As Judy Willis has suggested, standards should be based on the developmental brain research of what the age of the brain is capable of doing, not based on what we assume the brain is ready to learn. There are still traits of those old chapbooks in education. That is, prior to the illustrated primer, kids were taught like little adults. We’ve come a long way since then, but we’re still not always teaching what students can do, but on what adults feel they should do. Maybe it’s time to flip that philosophy? What triggers learning? Study the brain and what happens when it learns. Study MRIs when a 2nd grade brain is stimulated, a 5th grade brain is stimulated, a 9th grade brain is stimulated. Use that data to help guide instruction.

14. Electives, electives, electives. Sports, Arts, Engineering, etc…I want remote controlled robots darting through the halls like a scene from Star Wars. I want to hear a kid tuning up their guitar in the quad. I want kids coming to class, sweaty from activity…and I want deodorant awaiting them when they do.

I guess I haven’t mentioned teachers, have I? Well, I think that’s because in my head, the “social contract” as MiddleWeb creator and TLN moderator John Norton calls it, is not only back in place but also apologetically restored in abundance. We may not get tons of money, but you’ve got this great job that you wake up to everyday. That’s what’s been broken, and in my school of schools, that’s been restored. Wait, I take that back…

15. Teachers get a $%#& load of money.

Hey, I can dream, right?

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