8 Things The U.S. Must Do Now To Save Public Education

A forest kindergarten in Dusseldorf Germany
A forest kindergarten in Dusseldorf Germany

“I hate reading.”

Ouch.

I’d rather walk across burning coal than to hear these words from the mouth of a student in my classroom. For 14 years, I nurtured and facilitated learning in a classroom where 100 percent of my students made tremendous growth in reading, numeracy, and social skills. That all changed last year when I was provided with a reading script and asked not to vary from it for 90 minutes daily for the entire year. I watched my students whither and my soul ached as their reader spirits were crushed under the weight of our district’s million dollar curriculum adoption. Everyday, I begged four and five-year-olds to sit up and listen, stop going to sleep, take part, and focus. I made an ass of myself as I oohed and ahhed, jumped around with feigned excitement, and pretended that I was in love with every tiny piece of a lesson that popped up on my enormous touch screen computer ― where these babes were forced to focus on and off for over 90 minutes a day. And what was the return on my efforts? “I hate reading.”

Can I change it up? “No, the program must be run with fidelity.” I was told.

Some of the content is way over their heads; some is way below; and all it is dull. Can we make adjustments to the groupings? “No, you must catch them up during the lesson. Do the lesson in order. Don’t vary from the script.”

This is just one example of where our public school system has gone awry in the United States. No Child Left Behind, ESSA, and follow-up state legislations built to comply with it has made a mess. Somewhere along the road, we got off track and forgot that we are nurturing young Americans to be great citizens; to love learning; and to become the heroes of the future. That path veered into a mucky, tangled web of bureaucracy, blind subordination, and cold implementation of terrible curriculum. Terrible curriculum hawked by curriculum publishers worried about making bank and caring little about the outcomes for young children. Over $620 billion dollars was spent on curriculum in the U.S. in 2012-13. Meanwhile, the past three times I opened a new classroom, I was given the following budgets for materials: $0; $250; $0. In other words, American school districts are pouring millions of dollars into curriculum and “programs,” while the experts who were trained and hired to facilitate learning for children―classroom teachers― are ordered to apply faulty curriculum and provided with few resources to supplement it.

In 2015, I returned to public schools from a 3-year hiatus where I had trained educators on developmentally appropriate practice and co-managed a private Pre-K through 12th grade school for a year. Shocked doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings as I undertook my first year back in public schools under a newly adopted reading curriculum. My daily thought and conversation with other educators was simply, “How did we fall so far back in such a short amount of time?”

Recently, an administrator and I were having a conversation about student learning. Knowing that I have a passion for mining best international practices and advocating for developmentally appropriate practice, she took a jab at one of my common references for proper implementation and teacher trust. Her numb, cold statement that “America just doesn’t have the culture to be Finland,” stunned me. An African-American principal in the United States of America: taught, trained, and disciplined to be hopeless and conform? How did this country go from rebellion to blind corruption in just 400 years? From revolution to cold social order in just 250 years? From abandonment of archaic slavery and segregation to hopeless conformity in just 62 years?

For every corrupt, hopeless politician and administrator out there; there are hundreds of us who still hold onto hope. There is something we can do to change the tide. As administrators, leaders, politicians, parents, and citizens: we have the power to see changes come to pass.

Here are just a few of my many thoughts on education reform in the 21st Century:

1. DUMP STIGMA: ACCEPT CLASS, RACE, ETHNIC, SEXUAL, & EMOTIONAL/MENTAL DIVERSITY

When asked, most Americans will affirm the belief that skin pigment, income, heritage, sexuality, nor health are indicators of a person’s worth. Yet to an onlooker, one would believe that America is the home of the racist, land of the haters. Maybe it’s the nightly news featuring presidential candidates who call a quarter of the country, “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it”―willing to tear a country apart all for the sake of a win. Perhaps it’s that human nature seduces us into honing into our fear and “fight or flight” instinct; causing us to ignore the hundreds of positive interactions we see among our fellow man each day and only to make comment on the one ugly altercation that we witness.

Morality dictates that there is a difference between right and wrong. Moral Relativity would have you believe that you can justify wrong, as long as there is cause. Don’t believe that crap. There is light and darkness. There is good and bad. There is just and unjust. We feel it in our bones. We know it in our heart, our gut, our third eye. When hatred rears it’s ugly head, we know it. We identify it. It hurts and angers us. Some of us are mature enough to know how to breathe it in and breathe it out by turning it around and finding a way to bring light to it. Others jump into the flames of anger, accusation, and blame; making it worse. But most Americans know and believe in justice, goodness, light, right, and peace. Rather than fanning the flames, we must teach our children to find the light. Just as Fred Rogers, known to most as “Mr. Rogers,” said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” America is too wise, too educated, and too wholesome to be less than inclusive, compassionate, and diverse.

The rumor that Millennials are narcissistic and lazy is busted and now our nation is beginning to see that our hope might just lie in their hands as they are followed by an emotionally intelligent and awake Generation Z. I predict that the rising generations won’t give thought to the negativity and divisiveness of the generations before them, but will bust the myth that America is full of hate and show the rest of the world that we are not only international leaders in freedom, but in compassion and healing, as well.

These generations are the medicine that this country’s sick educational bureaucracies need to turn the system around and do right by the children that it serves.

2. STOP TALKING ABOUT SAVING THE PLANET AND LIVE IT

Climate change. Biodiversity. Nitrogen. Pollution. Acidification. Ozone depletion. Deforestation. Overfishing. Overpopulation. Earth Day. Arbor Day.

We love to talk about the environment. Curriculum companies have even grasped hold of the frenzy and began including content across subjects to appeal to tree-hugging administrators and classroom teachers. But, ask your average public school student how much time she spends outdoors while at school and the answer will likely not be compatible for a environmentally friendly belief system.

If we intend on helping our society become in-tune with nature, then isn’t the most obvious conclusion that children would actually spend time in it? And by time, I don’t mean 10-20 minutes a day running up and down a plastic slide or wiggling across a jungle gym. I mean time in nature.

Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in Fulton County, Georgia took the bet on kids and nature. Students here spend about a third of their time learning in the outdoors. The board chairman says, “The region’s third-grade average reading score is 41.3, nearly nine points below national average. Our nature-based school is batting 17 points above that average. Same thing is happening in math. In both third and fifth-grade, we’ve seen double-digit gains — a far higher rate than the county average, including the schools in wealthier areas.” Chattahoochee Hills Charter School students are healthier, too. “On average, they miss far fewer days of school than students elsewhere in the county.”

The Port Macquarie Nature School in Australia provides full-day experiential learning for preschool children and is expanding to establish a primary school and offer programs for teenagers with mental health issues and adults with intellectual disabilities.

In Germany, children can spend their day in Waldkingergarten, where they return to the roots of German education by spending the majority of their school day outside. Freidrich Froebel, the father of Kindergarten, spent his youth as a neglected boy who passed time relishing in nature. He went on to establish a school which he called “a child’s garden,” incorporating his own love for nature with an understanding of human introspection; hands-on play; and intentional learning facilitation through his “gifts:” a yarn ball, a wooden sphere and cube; a set of 8 one-inch cubes; a set of 8 rectangular prisms; and a set of cubes divided into halves and quarters. His vision and service to children spawned the modern version of kindergarten and inspired other great concepts, such Montessori; Reggio; and Forest Schools. Germany, getting back to its roots, currently hosts over 700 Walderkindergartens and approximately 50 new ones open each year.

Canada’s Forest Schools network provides a source of support and professional development for teacher and schools that seek to “foster rich learning experiences, ecological literacy, and healthy living by connection children to nature through the use of the Forest School model in the early, primary, and secondary years.” The website provides examples of 14 different independent forest schools who follow the model.

The U.S. hosts approximately two dozen “forest schools,” an embarrassing discrepancy compared to her peers. Canada’s population is a mere 11% of the U.S. population, yet they boast a higher number of forest schools. Referring to America’s option to consider more natural style learning programs, Richard Louv, Co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, says, “the majority of America’s school boards have marched in the opposite direction: reduced recess, fewer field trips, longer hours sitting at desks, more tests―and more computers, with iPads and even video games used increasingly as teaching tools in classrooms.”

Yeah, sounds quite familiar to me. As sad as it makes me to admit it, my experience is that U.S. schools are turning a blind eye to the fact that natural learning environments not only stimulate and promote incredible learning, but also provide children with a more intimate and personal understanding of the world around them and how to care for it.

3. TEACH KIDS TO TUNE INTO THEMSELVES

We’re falling behind in creating authentic and meaningful connections between our students and nature. What kind of impact will that have on our student’s capacity to connect with their own identity on an intrinsic level? What about technology at home and in the classroom? And how does this all play out in the realm of spirituality?

The brain is a complex place. Researchers can’t keep pace with the endless potential for study on the effects of technology and media on learning and introspection. Technology provides what seems to be limitless opportunity and yet abysmal potential for disaster. As parents, we can attempt to control and confine the impact on our children. As teachers, we strive to harness the resources and direct them toward focused opportunity. But, the truth is that the pace and potential of technology to affect our children is well beyond our control. We don’t know the impact of a fast-paced modern society on the minds of our children. We don’t know how affects morality, spirituality, or brain development.

Kathleen Harris defines spirituality of a young child as ‘actively living by being connected to a natural source within the moral universe and affectively belonging with relationships that are interconnected within a child’s culture and community.’ Connectedness. Relationships. Culture. Community. If these are the landmarks of a well-rounded child, how do we fare as a society in helping our children to navigate? My own children are age 6 and age 9. Some examples of the cultural norms in their school follow:

*Identified by a student ID number from Pre-K on

*Mixed placement in classrooms each year, meaning that there are multiple classrooms per grade level and my child will not be sure who will be in his classroom the next year. Students do not move in cohort or pod; they are randomly placed, therefore not creating bonds with a consistent group of students.

*Teachers do not progress with students, therefore relationships based upon Continuity of Care do not exist.11

*Religion, ethnicity, race, and culture are ignored; not celebrated. When they are acknowledged, certain ethnicities and races are celebrated while others are ignored. The U.S. Bill of Rights includes a protection to ensure that no one religion would overbear others. It was an attempt to provide safety from religious persecution. Yet, ignorance has assured that Americans walk in fear of celebrating individual differences and allow that very fear to prevent them from embracing their own heritage, as well of that of their neighbor.

*Limited or no time outdoors daily. Recess and lunch are used as a reward or punishment for being expedient at completing seatwork.

*Field Trips have been greatly reduced over the years and are limited by the local school board. Some are even dictated by the local board, not chosen by the classroom teacher who knows her curriculum and students best. They are considered to be generally frivolous.

* “Play as work” is completely unknown. Play is considered to be a frivolity and unnecessary component of learning, relationship-building, and opportunity for oral language development, communication, and problem-solving.

*Technology is over-utilized for learning and practice. It’s relied upon for rote practice, assessment, student information management, and busy-work.

*Interaction and talking betwixt students is frowned upon, punished, or wholly facilitated by teacher-provided prompts and timing.

So, tell me. If our children are to be whole in their spirituality through connectedness, relationships, community, and culture; how are schools promoting this? American schools have systematically created environments that are hostile to these very tenets. In order to reverse it, we must be intentional in the opposite direction.

4. STOP JUDGING; START LISTENING

Collaboration is the act of working with others to create something. Cooperation is working together to the same end.

Somewhere along the lines, American schools have lost sight of those simple tenets and sprouted mini-dictatorships across the nation. Misinterpretation of federal and state testing and standards implementation has led to panic among ignorant superintendents who force feed simplified solutions down the throats of principals and into the mouths of teachers.

Terms and strategies such as transparency, buy-in, and committees have been distorted and butchered into something very different from their intent. When an ignorant leadership team attempts to veil their incompetence through shadowed implementations and “pretend” collaboration, people take note. Especially intelligent teachers who can read between the lines. They may not say much, but they do notice and they are talking about it behind the scenes and attempting to do as much damage control in their classrooms as possible.

Teachers know what works. They know their students. If effective teacher evaluation and supervision is done consistently, then administrators are left with a healthy, strong, and compassionate workforce who can solve any problem with true collaboration, creativity, and freedom. It starts by letting go of fear and beginning to listen without judgment.

5. STOP COLLECTING DATA LIKE IT’S CANDY ON HALLOWEEN

Which leads me to data. For years, teachers have used observation, anecdotal records, and classroom assessment to understand the needs of their students. When teacher evaluation and supervision is effectively implemented, the cream rises to the top and the best teachers continue to do what they do best.

Data collection and evaluation has developed into a monstrosity of a cop-out for top level administrators and school principals. It has allowed them to use numbers as a distraction and opportunity to create a revolving door of intervention strategies, curriculum changes, and professional development trainings.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s all a smoke and mirrors. When schools struggle to meet state accreditation requirements, they scramble to throw more money; more teachers; and more programs at the problem. Some do a good job with innovation; most fail in a panicked state of instructional overkill.

Data has value and should be used to target areas where there are weaknesses and shortcoming in opportunities, experiences, and learning. The very data that causes one school to take more STEM field trips could be the same data that drives another school to increase the school day; expand time in the computer lab; or require more direct instruction. Good leaders allow their teachers to think intuitively and outside-the-box. Students are more likely to learn and connect with the material when provided with opportunities that are meaningful to them.

Data collection can be simplified, but I also value it at appropriate times for appropriate measures. It’s also critical that data is reviewed, discussed, and analyzed authentically in teams and across grade levels for greater understanding. Delivering a print-out with predetermined analysis to a classroom teacher removes value from the information.

6. FREE TEACHERS TO TEACH AND LEAD

If I could have a dollar for every time I heard, “Well, you chose your profession. Hopefully, you didn’t choose it for the money.” Genius. Simply genius.

Yes, I and the 3.1 million members of my cohort did choose our profession. No, it wasn’t for the big paycheck. But, go ahead and ask the 19-year-old version of myself if it’s O.K. with me for my district to put me on a pay-freeze for 7 years. Go ahead and ask if it’s O.K. to live on the poverty chart after 17 years of service. Ask my young version how I would feel about going back to further my education in order to make one more dollar an hour. No, we don’t do it for the money, but it hasn’t gotten better over time.

While there may be a variety of reasons that people go into teaching, a great majority of people fall in love with it and are passionate about helping children. There are tears. There is heartache. We see the physical, emotional, and mental scars of tragedy, disaster, drug abuse, neglect, molestation, abandonment, and physical abuse every day for years and years. We watch preschoolers walk in the door on tiptoes and then across a stage with a diploma and we cry like they are our own family. We work long hours and spend our weekends planning, scheming, and wondering what exactly to do to help Johnny spark a passion for reading. There is joy.

Teaching is a career of passion. This is exactly why I am so adamant about teacher evaluation, pay for performance, and high-quality administration and education. We don’t have room for slackers, promotion-seekers, and social climbers in schools. We only have room for people who are driven by serving children and ensuring that each one succeeds.

Quality teachers can be trusted with your children. They know exactly what your child needs and how to deliver it. Not just anyone can orchestrate this beautiful symphony. It takes leaders who understand school culture, collaboration, problem-solving, and quality instruction. It takes teachers and administrators who understand brain based learning; developmentally appropriate practice; and instructional strategy. Teachers can be trusted, admired, and accountable―all at the same time.

7. VALUE PEOPLE BEFORE THINGS AND DOLLARS

At the end of the day, the point of all this discussion over public education is that the students are the most important part of the equation.

Teacher’s jobs, grant dollars, school division budgets....none of it matters if the kids aren’t being nurtured and nourished into well-rounded citizens who love learning and find passion in their promise.

8. START ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

So, how do you know if your kids are in good hands? How can you ensure that your child’s teacher, school, principal, and school board are running a top-notch show? How do you know your district is providing a top-notch education so that you can retire knowing that your community is in good hands? It’s not as hard as you might think. First, tune into your intuition. Parents and citizens are duped or bullied into thinking that education is so complicated that they can’t understand it. That isn’t true. If your gut is telling you that something is wrong, then it is. There are some simple questions that you can ask your school leadership.

*What is your homework policy and why? Is there research to back up your policy? Because there is research that shows that homework is generally not effective for children and adolescents in increasing learning or academic progress. While reading is beneficial; it’s most due to a child selecting texts that are self-chosen and at an “easy” reading level. Text that is frustrating does more harm than good. Text that is at an instructional level can create misunderstanding for parents who don’t know how to help their child at home. Homework begins to have more meaning and positive benefits for older high school students and college-age students.

*How much time will my child spend in nature and in free play? Free play means that an environment is provided, but no instruction or structure is dictated. Children are free to invent, create, explore, problem-solve, collaborate, and think independently without adult intervention. Research has shown that multiple recess breaks during the school day, as well as nature-based classrooms, have a positive impact on learning and academic progress. More is better.

*What kind of freedom to your teacher have to select reading texts for my child and administer the five core components of reading instruction? It’s 2016. The abundance of quality reading materials for instruction is abundant. Don’t be fooled into thinking that teachers need a certain curriculum adoption or textbook series to become good readers. It’s quite simple for a trained teacher to deliver several levels of reading instruction in her classroom at a variety of instructional levels. Look for schools that allow teachers the freedom to provide guided reading, phonics & word study, phonemic awareness, comprehension, and fluency instruction in a way that meets the needs of her students while allowing her personal style to come through.

*How are math and science made to come alive through experiential, project-based, and hands-on learning? If the answer boils down to an online program or direct instruction, you might have to face your fears and be your child’s advocate. Over the years, I’ve counseled hundreds of parents on advocating for their child’s best interests. It’s your job as a parent.

*If your child is bilingual, multilingual, or has a medical, learning, or physical need, ask how the school handles 504 plans, IEP’s, and ELL/ESL/ESOL procedures. How will you begin the process? What services will be provided? Will you be completely involved in a collaborative manner? Is every teacher that is responsible for your child trained to meet his needs?

*How is district money allocated by school? Classroom? How much freedom do principals and teachers have in spending? The closer the dollar is to the student, the better. I’ve heard the argument that teachers shouldn’t control the purse-strings. If your school leadership isn’t doing a fair enough job of hiring and maintaining high-quality teachers that can make strong decisions for children, then your problem isn’t the budget; it’s leadership. When teachers have decision-making influence over dollars, your child’s needs are most likely to be met.

*How are parents, teachers, and community members involved in the evaluation and development of the schools and district? “Parent Involvement” is another misunderstood concept among the posers in leadership. It becomes another item on the list to check-off and gets turned into a dog and pony show in an effort to lure parents to a school. The authentic and meaningful purpose of parent and community involvement is to provide collaborative opportunities for stakeholders to become ingrained and involved in understanding the school’s needs; providing perspective and input; and collaborating to solve problems in an effort to be effective and inclusive by design.

Educators are optimists. They believe in the future and understand that the pendulum of educational trends swings; bring change; and often returns to old familiarity in due time. My hope for the future of education lies in the 1.7 million American home-schoolers. It lies in the thousands of Montessori, Reggio-inspired, forest schools, and creative schools. It lies in teachers going against the grain and doing what is good for children. It lies in the hearts of public and private school teachers who keep going, keep trying, and keep advocating for what’s right for children every day; even when it isn’t popular and their supervisors don’t approve. It’s in the fire of the parents who go with their gut and ask questions. It lies in the innovators, inspirers, and change agents that have pushed for change and will keep pushing, as long as they live. As long as children are children, we will keep fighting for learning.

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