True education reform

As the furor over American education increases, the demand for simple answers to complex issues escalates.

The easiest – and most visible – target for the ills of education is the classroom teacher. After all, teachers are entrusted with providing students with the tools to be successful in life and society; taxpayers expect a return on their investment.

Local, state and national standards lay out in excruciating detail just what is expected. Curriculum standards describe the content that students must learn, and professional development sessions disseminate the newest educational pedagogy designed to impart this information. To say that it is a daunting task is an understatement. The issue is not why so many teachers leave the profession, but rather, why so many stay.

Schools are a reflection of the society as a whole. If society truly values education, why is the average academic school year in the United States almost two weeks less than the international average for industrialized nations? When Americans complain about the preparation their students are receiving for college or work, perhaps some attention to should be directed to how long our students are in school and what takes up their time while they are there.

Then there is the need for "soft" preparation – things like work ethic, behavior, punctuality. Business leaders complain that new workers often don't understand the need to be on time, work hard, dress appropriately and act in a manner acceptable to the work place. But if the community – and parents – don't make sure students come to school on time, dressed properly and prepared to work, teachers must take up the slack. That takes time away from education in the curriculum standards. Perhaps an expectation that students arrive at school on time and get ready to work might be in order.

So, how should we improve high school to prepare students for college/career? The following suggestions might help.

• Lengthen the school year, but not the curriculum. Give schools more time to teach the existing curriculum, and there will be improvement. Even 10 or 15 more days would allow teachers time for review, for exploration of ideas, or for in-depth writing assignments.

• Get past the idea that school should be "fun!" What adults consider fun and what students consider fun are not the same. School should be challenging, interesting, exciting and illuminating, but not necessarily "fun." Sometimes it takes plain old hard work to master a concept. Sesame Street and other well-intentioned shows have done more damage than we realize in reducing education to sound bites. Education should not be all "drill and kill," but it is also not all fun and games. Homework is a necessary reinforcement, and the students won't learn the material as well when the parent decides that soccer practice, dance lessons or work is more important. The message that is being sent to the students is that hard work and practice are not necessary for school work.

• If the purpose of school is education let's consider the amount of time students spend on non-academic pursuits like athletics, journalism, band or choir, cheerleading and drill team, or theater. Of course there is value in each of these activities, but if the time students spend preparing for them were directed into academics, there would undoubtedly be improvement in academic results. Heresy? Perhaps, but this is where the community and society have to change. As long as Friday Night Lights or the high school musical have priority, not much will improve.

A demand for higher test scores, more stringent teacher evaluations, or more money – these are not the primary answers to the problems of education. The responsibility for education lies not just with the teacher, but with students who come to school prepared to learn, educational environments that are free from interruption and parents who work with the schools for the academic success of the students.

Without them, all other changes are cosmetic at best.

Sue Blanchette teaches U.S. history at Hillcrest High School in Dallas and is a Teacher Voices volunteer columnist. Her e-mail address is eagle91048@

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