An Educational Proposal

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An Educational Proposal
by Anthony Gayle

Having spent the past year teaching mathematics at a dysfunctional High School, I have some firsthand knowledge of the potential and problems that can be found there. There is a lot of research that targets underperforming schools, and a great deal of funding to be had for scientifically-based research i.e. empirical research that leads to gains on standardized tests. I believe what's lacking here is a sense of urgency. I don't think we understand that the cost of research can be measured in human lives. We are literally losing a generation of students while many academics and politicians make a living by using our schools as laboratories and our students as guinea pigs. And while there may be some merit to some of their research, I think it's important that the bulk of our energy and effort goes toward saving the students we're losing right now. Anything less is tantamount to witnessing a car accident on the highway and using it as an opportunity to study high-speed collisions or the resulting traffic patterns. Even if your ultimate goal is to save future lives, the tradeoff in real lives is a price no one should be willing to pay.

The following educational plan can be implemented very quickly and it can start with a single school. You begin by taking a struggling school and identifying 20-25% of the student body for reassignment. Eligibility for reassignment may be determined by high rates of suspension, absenteeism, referrals or poor academic performance. For example, in a school with 1000 students, approximately 200 of the most at-risk students might be eligible for reassignment. These students would be reassigned to one of the 100 highest achieving public schools in the county or in one of the surrounding counties. In this way, each host school would only have a couple of additional students and no one school would be overburdened. More importantly, the reassigned students would get an excellent opportunity for a great education. The antics that garnered attention or praise for them in their previous school would most likely receive a very different reaction at a highly functioning school. Trained professionals in the host school would have a tremendous opportunity to help these apprehensive students make the necessary transition.

Once there is a reduction in the target school population, there is an opportunity for that school to transform itself. Without having so many of it resources diverted to discipline or containment, those same resources could be spent on students who have already demonstrated a greater willingness to learn. You could have smaller class sizes. You could have teachers spend more time on lessons and less time addressing distractions. It would be a wonderful opportunity to transform a struggling school into a superb one. And once the target school is highly functioning, they can, in turn, become a host school. There are a few things to consider with my plan. First, we would need to develop resources for intracommunital (local) students. This can be modeled after successful programs for international students because, in both cases, we are essentially introducing students into an environment that will provide a stark contrast to their previous environment. Second, we have to make sure that funding is maintained for target schools. A reduction of the student body by 20% must not lead to a proportional reduction in staff size or available resources. There should be a gradual increase in the number of students once the schools are able to handle it. Third, the cooperation of school systems would be necessary. We are asking them to fully embrace the philosophy of public school education, that is, to produce fully functioning, productive citizens. We must remember that we are all affected directly and indirectly by the products of our schools.

There are people who will be highly critical of such a plan. They are some who may ask, "What are we going to do with the students who refuse to go to school?" To which I would respond, "What are we doing with them now?" The point is not to answer the question with a question, but to expose the underlying motive of such questions: criticism for its own sake. I realize that there is no panacea. But I also realize we are in a state of emergency and if we do not do something now, then we will all pay a much greater price later. I believe the benefits of this plan would far outweigh the problems. First, the plan addresses the issue of equity. It gives both teachers and students a fighting chance to grow personally and intellectually. Second, this plan anticipates some of the issues on the horizon of public school education. In an era that increasingly stresses accountability and assessment over learning, it's becoming clear to me that we will be moving towards more performance-based teacher pay and funding. Proponents of that option often fail to recognize how that can drive the inequality in student achievement they may seek to eliminate. How many potentially great teachers will want to teach in a school where their livelihood is tied to the performance of 11th graders who function on a 3rd grade level (as was the case in my situation)? Third, you are giving the students a fresh start; you are giving them a chance for self-reinvention. By catching the child early and while he or she is off-guard, the trained professional can use it as an opportunity to help that child learn to adapt to a new environment. This is both a necessary and valuable skill.

There will be challenges we have to face. We will need to have some patience. In all likelihood, it will take at least one or two class cycles before we see the completed transformation (4 to 8 years) with gradual improvement throughout that time period. There would be a need for greater cooperation between the High Schools and Middle Schools that supply them with incoming students. After all, these Middle Schools will be providing information that is vital for proper placement. The logistics of transporting students to and from schools will also be an issue. The biggest challenge may be student motivation and resistance. These will be issues that the contact person in the host school will need to know about. We will also have to make sure alternative schools and ancillary programs are ready to help those students who refuse an education altogether if and when they are ready to return. The important thing to keep in mind is that we must provide the best education for the greatest number of students. We must also afford kids as many opportunities to learn as possible. My plan attempts to do both. There may very well be better plans out there that specifically target the students in greatest need of intervention. If so, we need to implement them now because the clock is ticking.