June 13, 2007
Bill Gates is so well-meaning it hurts. He wants with all his heart to embrace an issue that goes almost unmentioned in politics: education. With his catchy and costly ED in ’08 campaign, he’s doing his darndest to get candidates to actually care about fixing one of the most broken systems imaginable, our public schools. Gates, who’s done a lot of research, wants three changes: rewards for good teachers (through competitive merit pay) a uniform national curriculum, and longer school days and hours. Sounds great on the surface.
Beyond the hype though, those priorities reflect a band-aid mentality. Comparing my time working in the public school system with my own privileged education, I’ve come to realize that much of public education today is practically designed to keep all but a bright and motivated few lower-income kids from achieving social and economic equality. To really level the playing field, public schools need to move towards a model more like elite schools’ (for the purposes of this article, I’m lumping in affluent public schools with private schools.) Following are some truly radical priorities that would change schools from the ground up.
Size it up
Let’s start with an issue that makes policy makers blanch because of the money required: class size. Reducing class size means building new classrooms and hiring more teachers. But it’s inherently biased to put poorer kids in bigger classes. In regimented classes of over 30 children, the attributes that help students achieve are diligence and obedience (and teachers are more authoritarian).
In smaller classes, where conversation can flow more freely, the qualities that help students achieve are analysis, leadership and questioning. One set of skills puts students in managed mode; the other promotes students into manager mode. I can’t emphasize that difference enough.
Since kids from poor and middle-class homes are less likely to have other mentors around–nannies, tutors, counselors and the like–the chance to talk with adults and air their opinions is more important for them. But they don’t get that chance. When I taught during the NYC subway strike and attendance shrunk, all my formerly rowdy students turned docile. In the more intimate environment, their attitudes towards school and authority were different.
The long and short of it
This kind of individual attention can do more than an extra half hour of classroom time will ever do. Kids are kids, after all–they tend to lose focus. An hour and a half and two hours of math are virtually equal in terms of what a child can absorb, and everyone who teaches knows that nothing gets done in June. You don’t see private schools clamoring for longer years; they have the shortest school calendars around! But those calendars are packed with vital activities–newspapers, sports teams, theater productions, field days. These are a bonus that encourages kids to come to school and help to build self-esteem and passion, not to mention a nice resume for colleges.