Smart Kids, Bad Schools

38 Ways to Save America's Future

Brian Crosby

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

Smart Kids, Bad Schools
The Way Schools Need to Be Restructured
Do you care about this country's future?
If not, put this book back on the shelf.
You may not have any school-age children. In fact, you might not have given a second thought about this country's public education system since you graduated so many years ago. Here's an amazing realization: Nearly one out of every five Americans attends or works in a public or private kindergarten-through-grade-twelve (K-12) school. So, what happens in this country's schoolhouses affects millions of people.
The people who we interact with daily are products (if I may use such a cold term) of America's public schools. Think of the last time you were in a retail store, a market, a bank, a gas station. Were the employees at these establishments helpful and able to answer your questions? Or did you think to yourself, "Did they even graduate from high school?"
You're in your car at a drive-through fast-food restaurant, placing an order via the speaker box: "I'd like two cheeseburgers." And the person on the other end reads back, "You'd like a taco and a shake?" in broken English.
Have you ever wished the person you were speaking to over the phone regarding your credit card bill was a tad smarter? Or at least located in the United States instead of India?
Once, in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, I asked an employee where I could find a copy of Macbeth. "Who wrote that?" she asked me.
Every citizen is impacted by public education. Before you put this book down, I need you to ask yourself some basic questions:
Do you wish for America to remain strong economically?
Do you wish for America to stay on the cutting edge of technology?
Do you wish people were better informed and that more participated in the voting process?
Do you wish for a prosperous future?
Are children the future of our country?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then you obviously do care about how we educate our young people.
This book presents a plan of action, thirty-eight steps toward a better way of educating kids and, in turn, securing America's prominence in the world.
Young people entering the job market today will have to ensure a place in it for themselves by either strengthening their education or filling a niche in America's economy. And how well are schools preparing the youth for this kind of future? Let's take a look at some statistics from recently conducted surveys:
• The United States ranks ninth out of twelve industrialized nations in math skills, tied with Latvia (wherever that is1).
• One out of every four American children reads below grade level.
• Two-thirds of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds cannot find Iraq on a map; one-third can't find Louisiana.
• American businesses spend an estimated $50 billion on training their employees in basic skills that should have been taught in school.
• One-third of all high school students, and one-half of African-American and Latino students, do not graduate--and this hasn't changed for thirty years, despite reforms.
• Half of all high school dropouts are unemployed.
• Two-thirds of imprisoned Americans are high school dropouts.
• In the future as many as one-third of the country's total available jobs may be outsourced. That's forty-two million jobs.
• Almost half a trillion dollars is spent on K-12 education each year. That's not a misprint--$500,000,000,000 is spent on education every year. For many, that's not enough.
According to a Time/The Oprah Winfrey Show poll in March 2006, 64 percent of people believe we are spending too little on education. Au contraire. In the past thirty years, the amount of per-pupil spending has doubled. Doubled. And look at the results! What company would continue spending more and more money on a product if sales remained stagnant over a quarter of a century? Putting more coal in the firebox is not going to make the education engine go further.
Headline after headline about how bad America's schools are fill the media daily. An outsider would think, "Wow, with all that money, how come that country can't educate their children right?"
Here's a multiple-choice question for you. (Remember, choose the best answer.)
What do the horrific statistics about America's schools prove?
a. There are many dumb students.
b. There are many dumb teachers.
c. There is a disconnect between what schools give and what students need.
d. All of the above.
Why A is incorrect. While some students do struggle in school, the reality is that children do the best they can in the system that exists. Kids tend to be a lot smarter than grown-ups realize.
Why B is incorrect. Any time you're looking for a juicy conversation at a party, bring up the topic of teachers, especially bad ones. They are an easy target. After all, they get paid whether they do a good job or not, can leave work early in the day, and have all those days off. Are there dumb teachers? Absolutely. But not as many as one would think.
Why C is correct. Okay, so if America's teetering-on-collapseschool system is not the fault of student or teacher incompetence, just what or who is to blame? The System.
Kids could thrive if given a different system. Teachers could thrive if given a different system. If the numbers were reversed, and suddenly 68 percent of twelfth graders were reading at an advanced level instead of below proficiency, imagine the positive reverberations in America's economy.
You see, improving schools is everyone's business, not just the business of teachers, parents, and politicians. America is not that far away from slipping off the cutting-edge radar. Don't forget that your taxes, whether you like it or not, whether your children attend public or private schools, go toward paying for public schools. It's an investment we all make, and so it's an investment we should all care about.
What's holding students back from fulfilling their potential is an outdated, musty, politicized organizational behemoth that continues to keep going and sputtering and gasping, teaching kids in the same virtually unchanged way from the little red schoolhouse of 150 years ago.
Today's educational system is yesterday's educational system. Imagine if medical care today employed remedies of a century ago. "Oh, that finger hurts? Let's cut it open and let it bleed." We treat people differently today, thank goodness, so why shouldn't we educate them differently as well?
Yet no one seems to have the foresight or fortitude to create a new vision for public schools, from the buildings that house students to the subjects taught and the food served to them.
After twenty years of teaching high school English and journalism to over three thousand students, mentoring dozens of new teachers, teaching university credential courses, and becoming a National Board Certified Teacher, I see what works and what's wrong, and so I have a plan.
Public school is dysfunctional. It needs to go through more than a simple makeover. It needs to be torn down, with a new foundation put in its place.
Like a dilapidated ramshackle fixer-upper that is more cost-effective to scrap than to renovate, now is the time to bulldoze America's public school system. The expiration date has passed. Forget CPR. It smells, it stinks. Discard the carcass. Start fresh.
In education, change moves at a snail's pace. Walk into any school, and you're bound to discover the books you used as a child still on the shelves; the chalkboards may have not yet been replaced with whiteboards; you may even discover the same desk or chair you sat in. When journalist Joel Stein came to visit my journalism classes, he was quite surprised to discover teens using the same literature anthology he had nearly twenty years ago.
Public school lags behind the times. For example, as long ago as the 1930s researchers discovered that when students had access to typewriters, they learned faster and better than those without. Did schools then provide all students with typewriters? No. And in today's times, do schools provide all students with computers? No.
One of the great ironies about America is how such a rich country could house such a poor public education system, especially when compared to its enviable university system, which attracts students from around the world.
As J. Martin Rochester said about America's education systems, in college, the classroom is the castle; in K-12, the classroom is the dungeon.
It's no longer a question of if America's schools will continue to fail students, but of how far the schools will fall. The 2005 National Academia report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" warns that the United States is on the verge of losing its economic, technological, and scientific advantage over other countries.
How many more companies must seek out better workers overseas to fill positions?
Must Wal-Mart take over every city in America to ensure that a bounty of jobs remain here (albeit low-paying ones)?
What's going to happen to one-third of the kids, who don't graduate?
What's going to happen to half of the kids, who don't finish college?
What's going to happen to the college graduates who can't get a job?
What's going to happen to America then?
Americans need to look deep down and figure out where they want the United States to stand in the world in ten, twenty, thirty years from now. The only position that counts--number one--is not a sure thing. Something has to change in our schools to prevent further decline; otherwise, this country will be going from a "nation at risk" to a "save America now" telethon. According to Wyoming senator Michael B. Enzi, ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, "Without an educated workforce, we are certain to lose our pre-eminence in the world."
The change that is needed in public education must be huge, along the lines of the civil rights movement. The same fervor people exert in antismoking and antiabortion campaigns needs to be replicated in efforts to transform public schools.
Yes, transform, not reform. "Reform" means to change to a better state while "transform" means to metamorphose, to completely alter an existing condition into a different form altogether.
But no one does anything to alter the system. And when I say "no one," I'm directly referring to the governors and president, the most powerful politicians in the country who really are the CEOs and CFOs of the nation's school system. We, the stockholders, should fire them for "reforming" public education. None of the recent reforms including the highly touted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002 have made public schools any different from what they were decades ago. You still have kids responding to bells like Pavlov's dogs, schlepping books from room to room. You still have teachers teaching the way they were taught. The framework of public education has not altered. NCLB and all the programs that came before it have acted as Band-Aids, not cures.
Let's face it. Wealthy people don't send their own children topublic schools unless they live in a district with heavily financed donations.
And look what goes on right underneath the noses of the U.S. Congress: More than half of fourth and eighth graders do not read or do math at basic levels, and four in five schools are not meeting NCLB achievement goals.
How ironic that the area in which politicians live and work, Washington, D.C., has always had one of the worst-performing districts in the nation. Perhaps one of the prerequisites for election of any U.S. representative, senator, or president--or, at the very least, any politician who serves on education committees--should be that all their children must attend public schools.
It may take a group not privy to the power to truly think outside the classroom box.
Since politicians control the way schools operate, it will take an honest-to-goodness political leader willing to give up power and transfer it to those who do the teaching: the three million public school teachers. That is one source of imagination and genius that largely goes untapped for its input. Even when eliminating the bad ones, the mediocre ones, the average ones, you are still left with a hefty number of gifted people who, because they actually go through the system day in and day out, have the best vantage point to drive the transformation. "Educrats," bureaucrats whose specialty is education, i.e., those who wield power in education and wish to maintain the status quo and thereby are out of touch with the reality of the classroom, enjoy freely referring to teachers as stakeholders or shareholders, but it's just a bunch of malarkey to make teachers feel good. Teachers have no real power. Educrats know it and they like it that way; otherwise, they would have no jobs.
Dear Mr. President. Call to you the best teachers in America. Put the smartest minds in the country in a room and have them map out a long-term strategy. Then be willing to give them control over it. Don't forget--those teachers are with our children for thebulk of their waking youth. If parents entrust their own children to teachers, then so should the government entrust teachers with knowing what's best in education. Because what's good for students will lead to what's good for America. The future depends on it.
Do we want high schools to continue graduating young people who are capable of doing less and less? This means that they will do less and less for this country.
Throw away the kitchen sink and reinvent the wheel. Start with a blank slate and come up with a visionary blueprint. Nothing should be sacred.
• How should the buildings appear?
• Is it okay for students to fail a grade and be promoted on to the next one?
• Should parents pay for public schools?
• Should good teachers be paid more than bad ones?
• Is there any point to homework?
• Should teachers work four days a week?
• Should holidays be eliminated from the school year?
• Is special education sucking away money from the rest of the students?
• Should teachers unions be banned?
By the title of this work I am not implying that all children are A+ students and that schoolchildren own zero accountability in the matter of their education. I'm saying that the system does not work and that young people could and should be achieving much more after thirteen years of education than they do now. They should be better prepared to enter society as contributing, responsible citizens who have future paths clearly "Mapquested." Yes, there are students who misbehave, who don't do their work, who are apathetic and don't want to be there any longer, as one-third vanish before the marathon race is over with. But it's the system that doesn't want to rethink itself. It's incapable of reflection, of looking inward.
So, as highfalutin as it may be, as pie in the sky as it may comeacross, as Pollyanna as some will dismiss it, here is one teacher's vision for America's schools.
This book serves as a blueprint of what public education in America could look like. It's not meant to be a technical manual. It is not meant to answer all the questions; it is not meant to give all the details and provide all the solutions. It is a complete vision, however, doing something that all other proposals and reforms have neglected to do: look at the whole picture, not just one piece. It's time to think big.
These thirty-eight ways to overhaul our public schools would make America's K-12 system the envy of the world and would make it equal the excellence of our country's universities.
It would be very easy to look at these ideas and quickly point out why they can't be implemented. Broken up, sliced and diced, each idea on its own is insufficient to transform the way students are schooled. All the actions in this book are interconnected. For example, merely starting school at a later time in and of itself will not do that much in the grand scheme of things.
To put any vision into action will take a long-term commitment. To enact certain changes and expect results after just a couple of years is foolhardy. Change isn't easy. But then educating people isn't, either.
Despite billions upon billions of dollars, years of reform proposals, intense testing of students, countless hours of training, nothing has changed.
The situation is desperate but not hopeless. View this book as an insurance policy against the current free fall of America's economic future. The teaching of America's youth should be viewed as a bulwark against democracy's demise. It's no good to just let students "get by." We must demand excellence. Our country's economic future rests on it.
Yes, national security is a top priority (though many don't know where Iraq is), but the best form of homeland security is educationsecurity. Without a sound education system in place for the twenty-first century, the other issues are secondary. Do we want our military to have poorly educated people in its ranks? You can't outsource an army.
Therefore, sit back, read the following with an open mind, and don't be too quick to cut down the ideas. Even if you think it can't be done, ask yourself, "Shouldn't it be done?"
SMART KIDS, BAD SCHOOLS. Copyright © 2008 by Brian Crosby. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.