Schools Work, But Need Help


A newspaper headline last year said that "90 million American adults can barely read and write." Without further analyzing the data that was used to reach this conclusion, I believe it is safe to say that we have far too many adults and children who lack proper reading and writing skills and that, in the area of education, America can do better.

As a public school teacher for 29 years, I would like to share some of my observations on teaching and learning in today's society and offer some suggestions on how school systems could enhance the academic opportunities for our students.

Public schools are not failing. We are doing an outstanding job of teaching every student, regardless of his/her abilities or special disabilities. Teachers, administrators and educational support personnel are dedicated to their profession.

Come late August and early September, teachers will be elbow to elbow in local educational retail stores spending hundreds of their own dollars purchasing instructional materials and activity packets for their students to use in class.

Local and state government budget reductions have made our job more difficult, but we could not be more dedicated to helping our children learn. As a result, Americans are better educated today than at any other time in our history.

If this is true, then why are so many Americans deficient in reading and writing skills? I believe the answers are complex and that it is the responsibility of every school system to explore ways to improve learning. As a result of my experiences in public education, I would like to offer the following 10 suggestions for improving our children's academic program.

* Class size is a factor in learning. School systems need to consider classroom size caps in the early primary grades and in selected secondary English classes. (The State Board of Education has ruled that it is illegal for education associations to negotiate class size). State funds would be needed to implement this reform.

* Curriculum innovations come from supervisors who expect teachers to implement them. While many curriculum changes have been good, it is important that all curriculum innovations be piloted and extensively evaluated before they are imposed system-wide.

* School systems must establish a balance between improving the "self-esteem" of students and maintaining academic standards and requirements. Self-esteem is not a substitute for learning. Unless we set high academic goals for our children, they will leave school with a false sense of being well-prepared to succeed in the competitive marketplace.

* School systems must annually evaluate the scope of their curriculum to determine if there is an acceptable balance between "social education and behavioral" objectives and "academic content and skill" objectives.

* Archaic practices, such as the assignment of classroom teachers to cafeteria and/or recess duties, rob teachers of valuable academic time. These practices need to be eliminated.

* Educators and parents must work together to write, promote and distribute summer reading materials to our children. In some cases, we should explore ways to hold students accountable for summer reading and writing. Year-round learning is possible without year-round school.

* Parents must turn off the television and encourage reading at home. PTAs and educators need to explore new ways to educate parents that one of the biggest obstacles to learning how to read and write is the amount of time that children spend passively watching TV.

* Grade inflation must end. In some school systems, a minority of supervisors and school-based administrators continue to pressure their teachers to inflate grades. School boards must end this practice and require that all grades be an honest assessment of the student's academic progress. Without honest grades, both parents and children are being cheated.

* The State Board of Education should require a non-education major for new teachers. A liberal arts or content-related degree would give new teachers a "head start" in preparing lessons and preparing content-related curriculum. A fifth year of college (or staff development) could be devoted to educational theory and techniques.

* The United States has no national standards for education. As a nation competing in the global arena, we must begin to establish, promote and invest in national standards of education for every American child.

If we can mobilize all of our resources for putting a man on the moon, we can certainly mobilize our resources to ensure that every adult knows how to read and write.

James R. Swab is president of the Howard County Education Association.

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