Foolproof School Reforms, though Not Knowing the Fools
“How could we successfully legislate education reforms?”
My master teacher paused for a moment. This did not compute, so I broadened the question.
“Or, what should we get rid of?” She had an answer to that, at least.
“Well, I’m glad you said that, because I was going to say, ‘outlaw No Child Left Behind.’ The federal government has no place in the classroom. That’s something that’s best left for states to decide.”
What reforms could California do, then? She had pretty good suggestions.
1. More local control of funds. The state ties up funds that could be distributed more equitably, or more in needs with the district. She didn’t give particulars, but as an ideological libertarian I already believe this.
2. Cut down on administration spending. Huge, behemoth school districts — like the one I’m student teaching in — spend up to 19 percent of all school funds on administration. She sarcastically estimated that the superintendent’s recent 35 percent raise would bolster the share to 24 percent.
“I don’t think people realize how much of the real estate this school district owns is used for administration,” she said. “I think I’ve been to 10 addresses on school district business, all administration buildings.”
She supports an administration spending cap, arbitrarily advocating a 5 percent limit on administration spending.
3. Smaller schools, smaller school districts. Large school districts are unwieldy in not only the economic sense, but also in the managerial sense, as my master teacher implied. School districts the size of ours release mandates as would an absolute despot, and the teacher-peons grumble. This does not facilitate Roland Barth’s “Improving Schools from Within” arguments, which include applying a culture of collegiality between students, teachers, parents and administrators. Smaller districts have more collegiality almost by definition.
The mechanics of how this could be achieved are simple — limit funding for districts larger than some arbitrary student population — but at least one practical point should be addressed.
Larger school districts could easily be reformed into a confederation of smaller, more local school communities, which would make it easier for parents to interact and involved with their local schools. The authoritarian shadow of downtown wouldn’t reach as far.
Of course, a skeleton structure of the former, larger district would remain. Its sole authority would involve finances and clerical work, plus negotiations with the local chapter of the teachers’ unions thrown in as a bonus. That should only take an office or two.
This is where I start sharing my own gathered ideas and recommendations.
4. Offer much higher tax breaks for companies who donate time, rather than write a check. Simply writing a check is detached for the company to do, and does not really engage the company with the school in question. Cash is too soon wasted in bureaucracy, the middle man and red tape.
Encouraging companies to send the professional workforce gives students a chance to see what a high school education gives them. Accountants as math tutors, lawyers as history tutors, journalists as reading comprehension tutors. With this, practical applications have never been so obvious to the disenfranchised student.
5. Start later, get out later. The New York Times had a certain, well-reasoned argument for this. According to the featured op-ed, some school districts that avoided busing costs reforms by switching high school and elementary start times. High school starts at 8:40 in those districts, and elementary schools add extra instructional time.
The result? Test scores improved. Even some some student athletes did better.
6. Extra funding, smaller class sizes for English learners. Smaller classroom sizes work. California doesn’t have it anymore only because of one of our many, famous budget crises, so larger classrooms came back pretty quickly.
But if there’s one population of students that would need this extra help, it’s the English learners.
English learners take the same tests as students fluent in English, and I won’t argue for administering the test in multiple languages. English learning students aren’t getting the extra help they need, either — their classes are usually just as crowded.
What do you think? What other credible and realistic proposals are there for the state of California and beyond?