I was in college in Southern California immediately after the Watts Riots of 1965. Along with a number of students, I spent Saturday mornings in Watts among the burned ruins playing with and providing recreation for the children of the impacted communities. We wanted to help in some small way and show we cared.
This experience started me on a lifetime journey of working in, and advocating for, public education and education equity.
After the riots, Southern California leaders promised to rebuild the neighborhoods and improve the schools. And while much was done, and continues to be done, more than 50 years later there are still schools in the general area — and indeed across the state and country — that are doing poorly in terms of student achievement, assistance available to struggling learners and graduation rates. Granted, the impact of poverty and the need for students to learn English require community as well as school support. However, it is inexcusable that the schools have been underperforming for so long.
If we are sincere about education equity, then we have to develop a “Marshall Plan” of sorts for underperforming public schools. Good teaching is no longer “nuclear science” (as my father used to say). The last fifty years of educational research, data gathering and experience have documented what it takes for schools to succeed, and can be summarized in the following ten components:
- Clear expectations: Learning expectations, or standards, should be clearly stated for each grade level and subject and cover not only reading, writing and numeracy, but also history, science and the arts. They must be public and shared with parents as well as students. But standards are not sufficient; they need to be fleshed out with an aligned and integrated curriculum that the teachers understand and are comprehensively trained on.
- Teacher preparation: Too many graduates of our schools of education express feelings of inadequacy when faced with the task of teaching. Every beginning teacher needs to be assigned a master teacher who will give them significant support. Clinical observations in the classroom — akin to how medical residents are guided and watched by senior doctors — should be regularly conducted and the data generated used to guide specific teacher improvements, especially during a teacher’s first three years in the classroom. Finally, teachers should not have to spend their own money nor their own time developing and finding good curriculum.
- Aligned curriculum: Provide resources and materials (textbooks, technology, ancillary materials, and library books) that are aligned from grade to grade and that are designed to deliver the basic curriculum. I once visited four first-grade classes at a school where each of the teachers were using a different reading program, negatively impacting teacher collaboration and student preparation. Much of American education reflects the independence of state, district and individual teacher decision making when selecting instructional resources. The poor alignment of resources and curriculum with the grade- and subject-specific learning expectations looms as a serious impediment to instructional improvement in America.
- Teacher support: Teachers need ongoing professional development that uses the curriculum being taught in their classrooms and focuses on actual classroom instruction, undergirded with time to collaborate. Attending out-of-area workshops has proven ineffective. The key is to tie the training directly to everyday teaching. Teachers are the backbone of efforts to improve schools, and if they are not well-supported then any improvement effort will be seriously stunted.
- Support for struggling students: A single classroom teacher cannot spend the time necessary to help those deserving of special attention without taking away from other students. Resources, both human and material, including tutors, must be brought to bear as soon as the teacher identifies and asks for assistance.
- Assessment data: Most of the assessments should be “embedded” in the curriculum, not separate “add-ons.” The concept of “continuous improvement” rests on providing meaningful feedback for both teachers and students frequently and in a timely manner.
- Outside programs: Afterschool programs should reinforce what students are learning in the classroom, providing enrichment as well as tutorial support for struggling students. Library services can reinforce students’ reading and learning. Vocational and community-based education activities offered during and after school should be integrated with and aligned to the curriculum.
- Quality preschool: Preschool should be provided in every poor neighborhood, largely focused on the expectations for kindergarten and first grade. I was once told “this neighborhood is too dangerous to have a preschool.” I said, “This is where the children live! Hire a guard if necessary.” The point is, do whatever is necessary to give children a chance at successful learning. Quality preschool requires well-trained and well-paid teachers, a child development curriculum that involves play, guidance, reading readiness and vocabulary building, and connections to kindergarten.
- School boards: School board members are critical to the improvement effort. They need to be supported with in-depth training and detailed information. Members must have a degree of understanding of the instructional components of school, as well as the fiscal and building components.
- Accountability checks: These “checks” of schools should be made by an entity outside the school and district, such as the state, a state-type agency or an independent regional or county-level entity. While a district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan might be a useful start for accountability, outside reviews are vital if we are serious about improving under-performing schools.
Can we hold our leaders, and ourselves, accountable to make education a priority for 2019? Not every component listed above requires that much money. What it does require are policies that reinforce sustained “on-the-ground” practice and improvement across all ten components.
Fifty years of research and experience have given us the know-how to help every student and school. Our conscience and equity goals require a specific and comprehensive plan of action. Will 2019 be the year?
Glen Thomas was a teacher and administrator and served as California Secretary of Education under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
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