HOW TO FIX URBAN K-12 EDUCATION IN AMERICAHOW TO FIX URBAN K-12 EDUCATION IN AMERICA
Solutions for Urban K-12 Education in America
The urban K-12 education system is failing in America.¬† Everyone is frustrated and there is finger pointing all over the place.¬† Some blame the parents.¬† Some blame the teachers.¬† Some blame the school systems. ¬†Some blame the students.¬† And so on.
This blog will describe the problem, explain why the current approaches will never work, and outline eight steps that can be taken to really fix urban K-12 education in America.
As most people know, a large percentage of students in urban school districts are not performing near their grade level and end up dropping out before the eleventh grade.¬† Large urban school districts struggle to get 50% of their students to graduate from the 12th grade.¬† On any given day you can find students fighting, cursing at teachers, shooting dice, having sex, and/or skipping class in almost every school district, especially in high schools.¬†¬† Too many students go to school for everything except education ‚Äď they do not study, do not do any homework, and misbehave in class on a regular basis.¬† It does not help that parents frequently are unable or unwilling to work with the school to improve their child‚Äôs performance.¬† In many cases, the only reason that parents come to school is to complain about something or attempt to set the school up for a lawsuit.
It is no wonder that parents that care are removing their children from these environments; teachers are frustrated, and the good students are overwhelmed with negative influences that often pull them off the right track and into trouble.
While this is not the case in all schools or for all students, it is the case in far too many schools in every urban school district.
For those who have abandoned the inner cities for the suburbs these problems are ghetto problems for those left in the inner city to figure out.¬† As long as the conditions are not present in their child‚Äôs school, then there is nothing for them to worry about.
But they are wrong.¬† Today, the vast majority of the Americans live in cities.¬† As we sit back and watch millions of students (especially African-American and Hispanic students) become delinquents, drop outs, criminals, and public aid recipients, it affects everyone.¬† These students become adults who are unable to get a decent job.¬† However, like everyone else, they want a nice home, money in their pocket to buy things, and a nice car.¬† Without a chance of a decent job, many turn to crime.¬† This makes our urban cities unsafe and poor.¬† It also means that our cities and states end up spending tons of money on jails and prisons, instead of investing in programs that increase productivity and enhance the quality of life.
From a macro perspective, our failing urban school systems are diminishing America‚Äôs ability to compete in the new world economy.¬† In large part, America has become the world‚Äôs economic superpower because we have (1) abundant natural resources, (2) a free and stable democratic republic with a capitalist economy, and (3) an educated populace that has led the world in invention, creativity, and entrepreneurship.¬†¬† All three elements have been and will be critical to America‚Äôs prosperity as a nation.¬† However, the failing urban education system is causing us to suffer a great reduction in the number of people who can invent things, qualify for 21st Century jobs, and start new businesses.
There is a new economy.¬† We are fastly moving from an industrial economy to an information economy.¬† The success of Internet businesses like Google, Ebay, and Amazon and the failure of old industrial behemoths like General Motors and Chrysler are proof positive of this shift.¬† The new American economy will require a new round of inventions and new kinds of businesses that are based on information and technology.¬† There is a huge push for green technology and green jobs ‚Äď but who will invent the green technology and who is going to qualify for the green jobs?¬† Certainly not the millions that can barely read and write and are dropping out of inner city schools each year.
By contrast, countries like India and China are producing more engineers today than ever before.¬† In fact, in many of our colleges foreign students make up a large portion of the engineering and science graduates.¬† Moreover, these students are now seeing that they can take their skills back home and realize exciting opportunities in their growing economies.¬† In short, if we do not fix the problem of urban education and continue to let millions and millions of students fall through the cracks each year, China and India will be closing in on us within a few decades.
Why the Current Solutions Don‚Äôt Work
There are several main approaches to fixing the America‚Äôs urban schools.¬† The most popular solution is to give parents more choices with more charter schools.¬† However, the test results show that most charter schools are not doing any better, and in many instances are doing worse than the city school systems.¬† The few charter schools that are producing better results require significant parent participation and have a zero tolerance for bad behavior, truancy, and violence.¬† Also, often parents have to drive their children to the charter school because it is not close enough for the children to walk.¬†¬† Which means that those schools are only doing better because they are getting the best students ‚Äď i.e., students with involved parents who also take the time to transport their children to and from school.
There are some who think that urban schools just need better teachers. This solution is a straw man.¬† Inner city teachers graduate from the same colleges and require the same certifications as teachers in non-inner city schools.¬† In other words, all teachers come from the same pool of graduates, so the disparity cannot be blamed on the teachers.¬† In many instances the teachers in city school districts are more qualified because they may have to comply with more state and federal laws and regulations to teach certain populations.
There is a frequent claim that urban schools could be better if teachers were paid based on merit.¬† In theory, this would help improve student performance; however, it would be extremely difficult to make a fair comparison in teacher performance.¬† If you have a class that misbehaves and the teacher is successful in getting the students to calm down is he or she not to be rewarded?¬† If a teacher has a large group of students who insist on skipping school and not doing their school work, should the teacher be punished?¬† A merit pay system is likely to create resentment in the teachers who are not rewarded and encourage teachers to avoid the schools with the most challenges.¬† ¬†Also, merit pay will not get to the root cause of the student‚Äôs poor school performance.
8 Steps to Fix Urban K-12 Education
There are eight steps that could be taken to fix urban K-12 education.¬† I will briefly outline them below.
1. ¬†Implement an ‚ÄúEducation Matters‚ÄĚ campaign.
The biggest reason that students are failing is because we have a culture in the inner city that does not value education and too many in the community who do not know what to do to help students succeed in school.¬† This may be a surprise to many, but most students are not failing because of poor teachers, poor schools, or poor instruction.¬†¬† The more important variables are the fact that students do not study, do not do homework,¬† misbehave in class, engage in all kinds of inappropriate activities in school and on school grounds (e.g., cursing, shooting dice, fighting, and having sex), and often skip classes.
We have to change the culture.¬† The old proverb ‚ÄúIt takes a village to raise a child‚ÄĚ is as true today as it ever was.¬† We need to change the way many in the inner city view education.¬† We need to have a major campaign to educate people about education.¬† We need the community‚Äôs leaders to come together to develop a campaign that educates and reinforces the importance of education.¬† It could be called ‚ÄúEducation Matters.‚ÄĚ¬† The campaign would involve the city‚Äôs politicians, community activists, celebrities, fraternities and sororities, religious leaders, parents, extended family members, teachers, school administrators, business leaders, student leaders, unions, television stations, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, billboard companies, and everyone else that can be helpful in the campaign.
The ‚ÄúEducation Matters‚ÄĚ campaign should tell people why education is important from a variety of perspectives, why the students should stay in school, how school will improve their lives, why they should study, how education is relevant to what people do in real life settings, how many hours a day they should do homework, how to behave in school, why the parents should attend parent-teacher conferences, how parents can be partners with teachers, why (and how) people should volunteer in schools, how parents can get help when their children are having difficulty in class, and so on.¬† The ‚ÄúEducation Matters‚ÄĚ campaign should include television and radio commercials, billboards, community fliers and posters throughout the community (in churches, barber shops, beauty salons, recreation centers, schools, etc), people walking the neighborhoods and working festivals, and so on.¬† In short, it should be a massive positive propaganda campaign.
Furthermore, the ‚ÄúEducation Matters‚ÄĚ campaign will need to continue for at least 20 years.¬† This may sound like a long time, but if we had gotten started in 1989, we would have made significant progress by today.¬† Instead, we have spent the last 20 years on unsuccessful efforts that do not address the real causes of student failure.¬† Until our leaders decide to implement a 20-year (or longer) campaign to change the inner city culture regarding education, we will not be successful in fixing urban K-12 education.
2. Make Sure That Children Can Read by Third Grade
There is no way that children (or people) can be successful in the new world economy if they cannot read.¬† There has to be a focus on reading in elementary school.¬† Students cannot perform well in any subject if they cannot read.¬† If the students are not reading by third grade, then they should not be allowed to go on to other advanced subjects.¬† In other words, they should spend a greater and greater amount of their school day on reading until they can read.¬† Reading is truly fundamental.
3. ¬†¬†Create Safe Schools and Safe School Grounds
Schools have to be safe places ‚Äď both inside and out.¬† There is no learning that can occur in an unsafe environment.¬† It is basic human nature to need safety after food, water, clothing, and shelter.¬† Everyone is pre-occupied with fear in an unsafe environment.¬† Also, we owe it to children and families to make schools and school grounds that are safe zones.
4.¬† Implement Competitive Rewards for Outstanding Teachers
Teaching today is hard work.¬† There are not enough rewards for doing outstanding work in the classroom.¬† Everyone responds to positive reinforcement and being rewarded for being the best.¬† This does not involve merit pay from the employer.¬† This reward should be competitive and based on recommendations from parents, colleagues, and members of the community.¬† It should be financed by businesses and foundations, and there should be a selection committee that is representative of the funders and others selected by the funders.¬† The amount should be significant (perhaps $10,000 per teacher) and the recipients should be honored publicly
5.¬† Teach Character Education in Schools
Unfortunately, many students are not receiving proper home training.¬† Students come to school thinking that it is ok to curse in class (at teachers and students), disrupt class, and show general disrespect to adults.¬† This has gone on for far too long.¬† This problem is made worse by the images and language in rap videos, the absence of fathers, and the rise of street gangs.¬† We have to teach character education because that is the only place where many students are going to get it.
6.¬† Teach Violence Prevention in Schools
We have too much violence in schools and on school grounds.¬† Students cannot resolve conflict without fighting and even resorting to serious weapons like knives and guns.¬† We can save lives and reduce the fear that students face in going to school each day by teaching violence prevention and conflict resolution in the schools.
7.¬† Re-evaluate Career Technical Programs
In most school districts, there are career technical programs (sometimes called vocational technical programs) that teach trades like welding, auto mechanics, computer repair, cosmetology, nursing, etc.¬† These programs need to be re-evaluated in light of the new economy to make sure that students are learning trades that fit today‚Äôs open jobs.¬† In the new economy, there are new opportunities for new careers in new industries like green technologies, the Internet, and bio technology.¬† Health care is also a growing industry.¬† These fields pay good wages but require skills (and sometimes licenses).¬† It is time to re-evaluate the career technical programs to make sure that we are preparing students for the jobs of today as well as the jobs that we can see on the horizon.
8.¬† Require That High School Students Graduate Prepared for College or With a Trade
Students who drop out with no skills contribute to poverty and crime.¬† The quality of life suffers for everyone in the city and the city has fewer and fewer resources as the tax base shrinks.¬† Urban schools can be economic engines for cities.¬† Currently, there is a rifle focus on getting all students go to college.¬†¬† However, many students are not prepared for college and furthermore, have no interest in college.¬† However, students can be taught a trade so that they can get a good job upon graduation.¬† Also, research shows that students in a career tech program are more likely to remain in school and graduate.
Schools should make sure that students are either solidly prepared for college or receive a trade (or at least be solidly on their way to a trade that needs a little more training, education, or an apprenticeship).¬† This would be a form of voluntary tracking.¬† Students and parents would be required to select either a college prep track or a career technical program.¬† Those who are unsure would receive the career technical education offered at their neighborhood school (with the option to change at a later date if they chose to do so). This would ensure that students are graduating with the tools necessary to become self-sufficient and likely middle class.¬† It would give the students a trade upon which they can build a business or earn money for college.¬† Also, it would increase the average income of the citizens and reduce the crime in the inner city (people with jobs and businesses are less likely to commit crimes).
The problems confronting urban K-12 education are not new.¬† They were created over decades.¬† As a result, they will not be solved by the short-term solutions proposed today.¬† A comprehensive, long-term strategy is needed.¬† I have outlined 8-steps that will make a huge improvement in urban K-12 education.¬† The plan will also improve the quality of life for residents in the inner city, free up resources that are now devoted to building jails and prisons, and increase the brainpower needed to keep our economy innovative and competitive.
There are lots of details to work out.¬† But I believe in America and if we make up our mind that we want to fix urban education we can do it.
There is no time like the present to start.