Education Reimagined

Education is in an upheaval. Teachers have been forced to learn how to teach online practically overnight. Parents were forced to suddenly become their child’s coach, teacher, and counselor. All this while we are at record unemployment rates, with many working from home while still supervising their kids.

What if we took advantage of this time to reimagine education? What if some of the changes that have occurred – the good, the positive, the different – were somehow able to be incorporated permanently?

Dysfunction

I have been a teacher for 22 years. I’m currently at a Title I school, but have also taught at a suburban public high school and a private school. We have some serious dysfunction in our system at all levels! When I think about the times I have wanted to quit teaching, it has never been because of what happens within the four walls of my classroom. It has often been because of outside forces I was unable to change.

Standardized testing – The thought behind accountability is good, but in our current bureaucracy, high stakes tests are not the answer. Too much time is taken away from content learning to prepare for the test. On test days, the students are sitting for way too long, and the teachers are bored out of their minds. The results of the tests can often take six months or more to receive, making immediate change in our instruction next to impossible.

Lack of professional treatment – I am in a teaching position now where I receive a lot of professional respect, but that has not always been the case. About 10% of teachers should not be retained. Many educational leaders impose policies on the other 90% that are needed for those 10%. Our system needs change, mostly in the hiring and firing process, whic has often become politicized and weaponized. There are even some environments where the students seem to be in control.

Time spent (or wasted) – I once taught at a school where the principal constantly told us we were not doing enough…and this at a time when I was working 11-12 hours a day. I thought, “What more can I do.” I was just as guilty! 

When I taught marching band, we rehearsed for 2-3 hours every afternoon. Saturdays were filled with practice or competitions. Why? Is it possible to be too busy? Yes. A friend of mine who started teaching in the 70s told me that marching band competitions used to take place on Fridays. The students missed school to attend – notice I didn’t say they missed their education – the competitions were just as educational as math computations. Students were off on Saturday to spend time with their families or just hang out. 

The same thing happens in sports. It has become so competitive that teams often practice three hours or more a day, and often come in for an “optional” practice during school breaks. I know…I am the dad of several kids who participated in high school sports (junior high seems to be more reasonable in this).

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No standardized Testing – Teachers are free to focus on helping their students learn and improve without worrying about teaching to the test. No more three day stretches where students sit on their butts all day. We would gain back 8-10 days of instruction.

Reasonable Practice Times – What if marching bands, sports teams, and other clubs limited their practices to one hour, competitions and games were held earlier, and most or all Saturday practices, meets, and games were eliminated in favor of doing these events late afternoon? What if students were able to be home for dinner?

No Homework – There was a time when homework made sense, and maybe for high school it still does, but where does the time for play, for creativity, for reading, for getting together with friends, for family – where does that time come from? You might say, “Well, if they’re not doing homework, they’re just going to be playing video games.” That might be true, but then it’s on their parents, not you or me.

Treat Teachers as Professionals – Hire well. Pay well. Get rid of the dead weight. Teachers, we are at fault in this too. (Now I’m about to get flogged by my fellow teachers). I don’t believe small class sizes are always the answer. Imagine with me for a moment before you throw that stone. I once had a class of 65 beginning guitar students. It worked because all the students were motivated to be there and wanted to improve. Did it take a lot of prep on my part? Yes, but it worked. 

Large classes can be difficult because of the dysfunction in our system. What if you had a class of 30 hard working, disciplined students who wanted to be there? What if the six who struggled worked with a teacher in a small class who was able to provide more individualized attention? What if instead of one teacher for every 15 students, we had one teacher and one aid for every 30 students? A well-trained and responsible aid can function almost as a second teacher! 

What if students who did not “get with the program” were invited not to return? When I taught at a private school, the school worked with students and gave them many chances to succeed, but if they did not get their act straight, they were let go.

Reimagine 401 

I’m about to be flogged and stoned again, but bear with me and realize this is all meant to make you THINK. Colorado spends about $10,000 on each student for education. We are one of the lowest in the country. Where does all that money go? A lot of it is wasted. Many districts become bloated at central admin with positions that often have little to do with education. Some of these positions are needed. Many are a result of the dysfunction in our system as school districts adopt a CYA, (cover your a**) approach.  

What if that money were available in voucher format? (Look into this – REALLY look into it – and you will find cases of vouchers working well). You could see scenarios like the following:

Licensed Homeschool Mom who teaches her own three kids and three of the neighborhood kids right in her own home. They take weekly field trips, every child works at his own pace, there is lots of time for play and exploration, and she is able to make 50k a year (60k from vouchers minus 10k for expenses). Perhaps both moms are trained teachers and they split the profit. It doesn’t seem like much, but when you realize you don’t have commuting, child care, and cleaning costs, it is more.

Reading Specialist who sets up her own academy to work with kids who struggle with reading. She limits her “school” to 16 kids and hires an aid who specializes in reading. She brings in 160k, pays her aid 40k, has expenses of 30k and nets 90k for herself. Student/Teacher Ratio is 8/1. Students end up excelling in reading.

James Divine’s Dream Music Academy In this school, I would have 100 musically oriented kids who are gifted and motivated in music. They would audition to be there. Mornings would be focused on band, choir, marching/jazz band, and theory classes. Afternoons would be focused on what we usually call core classes. The students would even learn to cook and would handle lunch preparation and clean up. There would be no after school rehearsals – all of it would happen during the school day. Students would also exercise every day. Here’s what my budget would look like:

100 students @ 10k each 1,000,000

5 teachers @ 100k each -500,000

1 admin exec @ 100k  -100,000

2 educational aides @ 50k each -100,000

building/insurance -100,000

Supplies, computers, books -100,000

Field trips/travel -100,000

Do you want to come work for me at 100K?

I have thought about and considered the ideas in this article for many years. It is doable. Every objection is due to dysfunction in our system. What about handicapped students? We already spend extra on those students. Perhaps someone could start an academy specifically dealing with the students’ handicaps. Perhaps an existing academy would incorporate the students and hire an additional aide if needed. I have believed in and practiced inclusion my entire career.

But James, what would happen to our current schools? Won’t they close down? Yes, some of them will. But most of them will adapt, innovate, and become better, shedding their thick layers of bureaucracy and becoming the focal points of their community.

James is a band and orchestra teacher at a Title I middle school in Colorado Springs. He is in his 22nd year of teaching and believes that is his calling. One of his life-long goals is to act his shoe size, not his age. Find out more at www.jamesdivine.net.