Rethinking our public schools

My mother is a public school teacher. She teaches first graders in New Jersey. Over the years I have had many conversations with her about the state of public schools and the direction they are going in. The conversations generally leave me frustrated. Frustrated because I know we can do better. People like my mother dedicate their lives to improving children’s futures. Yet the system they work in is full of problems preventing them from having the greatest impact.

This goes against what you typically hear when people discuss improving our schools. Instead, you’ll usually hear that it’s the teachers that cause problems. The argument is that tenure and teacher unions are preventing our children from getting a great education. They believe if we only had the freedom to fire bad teachers we would have the greatest schools in the world. This is the argument used by many conservative politicians.

This argument couldn’t be further from the truth. The major problem with treating schools as if they were businesses is that it’s based in fantasy. It assumes only bad teachers would be fired and only great ones would be hired.

Unfortunately, this isn’t reality. First, schools, like most public entities, are under a lot of pressure to reduce costs. Second, public school teachers are paid on a schedule based on experience and education level. And finally, there is an abundance of new teachers graduating and applying for teaching jobs every year. It shouldn’t take a degree in economics to figure out that if you got rid of tenure and teacher unions tomorrow and started treating schools as businesses, the more experienced, better educated, and most expensive teachers would be the first to go. This hardly sounds like an approach to getting the best education for our children.

Or maybe you’ve heard improvement has to come from the home. The argument here is that a child spends a lot more time at home than in school. So if a child gets little attention at home, even the best schools in the world aren’t going to be able to help.

It may be true that home life has an impact on a child’s education. But the reality of the world we live in today is that there are more single parent homes than there ever have been. In addition, many parents need to work multiple jobs just to survive. This isn’t an excuse for parents to neglect their children, but if a child’s home isn’t providing the attention needed to do well in life then I think our schools should answer the call.

Instead of focusing on teachers and parents, the place that should be the central focus for improvement is the school system. It’s a system stuck in the past with few updates since the early part of the 20th century. It’s time we update it.

The first update should be treating teachers better and showing them more respect. Teachers are the core of our educational system and should be treated as such. We should hold teachers in the same regard as doctors and lawyers. But in order to accomplish this we’ll need to make some changes.

One of these changes should be introducing higher qualification standards for teachers. Like doctors and lawyers, teachers should have to go through more years of schooling and training. This should increase the quality of teachers that we produce as well as better control the amount of teachers that are graduating and looking for jobs. I think the medical field probably has the best model to imitate, where years are spent both learning as well as actually doing. Because teaching is a skill that requires hands-on learning in addition to classroom instruction.

If we increase the amount of schooling and training required to become a teacher, we should also increase the amount of money a teacher makes. The current compensation for public school teachers is embarrassingly low for what they do. This will have the added benefit of both drawing better talent to the field of teaching and gaining more respect for teachers from society. Right or wrong, people who get paid more tend to get more respect in society, with the possible exception of Wall Street.

These changes should even appeal to conservative politicians. With increased training and salaries, teacher unions won’t be needed as much. Most of the jobs today that still have unions are ones where employees feel mistreated by their employers and threatened to be discarded. If teachers don’t feel threatened and treated poorly, then they’ll be much less likely to desire a union to protect them.

Another update to the public school system I think we need to make is redefining what school is. Schools today are run almost exactly the same as they were run 100 years ago. But in order to address the problems facing our children today, we have to change it. One of the ways we should change it is by increasing the length of the school day and getting rid of long summer vacations.

Increasing the length of the school day would have many benefits. First, it addresses the problem of parents not having time to take care of their kids. Currently, parents try to solve this problem by using something like day care or a babysitter. But why can’t schools fill these roles? They would also be able to have more time to teach the things they might otherwise learn at home to fill the void discussed above. And the typical day wouldn’t have to be structured the same way either. Students could have multiple teachers throughout the day who specialize in different things from childcare to reading.

Longer days could also help encourage schools to explore different curriculums. Teachers would have more time to dedicate to go deeper with subjects and even explore teaching less traditional but potentially more interesting and beneficial subjects to students, like computer science. It could also be used to get all students to participate in extracurricular activities. Maybe we’ll even stop calling them extracurricular and instead just except them as part of the school day.

It seems a little ridiculous that we stop educating our children for two months of the year. Removing summers would help students hold onto subject matters that are often lost over the summer months. We can still give breaks to students every so often for a few weeks at a time, similar to what we do now for winter and spring breaks. Eliminating summers would also have the added benefit of helping parents answer the difficult and sometimes expensive question ‘What do I do with my children during the summer?’

If you removed summer vacations, you would also help ease a division between rich and poor children. With summer vacations, wealthier parents can afford to send their kids to summer camp or hire tutors. This gives them a leg up against their less fortunate classmates whose parents can’t afford tutors and instead may spend their summers in front of TVs. Without summer vacation, all children can spend the summer months learning, no matter how well-off their parents are.

There’s little reason in my mind why we couldn’t implement these changes. I think we’ve just gotten used to it, so we accept it as normal. Most of the challenges, like hiring more teachers, structuring the days, and figuring out new curriculum are small hurdles that can be easily overcome.

If we want an education system that goes above and beyond our current one then we need to be willing to make big changes. Of course there will be obstacles to overcome in implementing them, namely how to fund them. But considering the size of the US government’s defense budget compared to the budget for education, there definitely seems to be room for more intelligent ways to allocate our resources.

Not improving the educational system in this country is not an option. We take great pride being the most innovative and forward thinking nation in the world. Yet our educational system is hardly innovative or forward thinking. Our challenge is that the world is moving faster than ever before and if we don’t have the courage to make big changes then we will be left behind.