Friday, January 3, 2014

My Pretend Ideal School

What follows is my attempt at thinking about a way to "do" school in America without all the annoying assanine problems we have right now. I was so hopeful that the nice-sounding mission of Common Core was going to be awesome, but its implementation has proven to be far less than promised. And the College Board--don't even get me started. So how would I--a highly educated mother of three very motivated students--structure the school system?

First, we need to think about the point of education. I have a bias about this, so let's get it out there right up front. I believe education is supposed to produce an educated population, one that can think critically and analytically, one that can discern mumbo jumbo on Fox from actual news, one that understands other cultures and governments, one that has a broad range of culture literacy. I don't think education is there to prepare people for jobs or whatever. A well-educated populace will be prepared for all kinds of things, jobs included.

My ideal school would be a free (no-tuition), private school, not subject to the rules of idiots who run the state department of education but who have never ever worked in the school system. I shall for the time being--since this is just a hypothetical school--invoke the debater's method of fiat for funding. In other words, for the sake of argument, we'll assume there will be funding for this idea. (I mean, why get bogged down in reality?)

Admission to the school will be based primarily on the student's willingness to abide by the standards of the school--such as no bullying, respect for self and others, self-motivation, etc. Under no circumstances will socio-economic status be a deterrent to admission, nor any other factors such as race, parental involvement, etc. In fact, the goal will be to provide the most diverse population possible and to have an atmosphere that welcomes and respects all people from any race, religion, gender identification, neighborhood, nationality, and any other factors that are commonly used to exclude.

The curriculum at this school will be written by the teachers, not a corporation. For now, let's pretend it's K-12, although some of my ideas might be best only as you get into the high school years. Every student will take Latin from the very beginning. Until they leave. Yes, it's a dead language, but the skills learned by studying Latin serve the mind well in conquering a whole host of other things, such as our own language, logic, etc. Every student will also take another foreign language. It doesn't have to be the same one from k-12, but each language should be studied for a minimum of three years to achieve some basic level of fluency.

The rest of the coursework will be very rigorous--really. Not the way Common Core promised to be rigorous. Students will be expected, say through the course of high school, to study the history of the world, not just western civilization, but also Asian history, African history, and South American history. Same with literature. In fact, ideally, all courses would be aligned so that students are studying the period of history and literature and science together. Writing well shall be emphasized across all subjects.

The emphasis of this school will be on classic education: language, history, math, literature, science, art and music. There will not be vocational programs. All courses will be the same for every student, based on the idea that all students are equally capable of mastering all subjects. Some may need more time, and the structure of the school will allow for that. Students who are able to progress more quickly may do so, and thus take higher level courses. There will be daily time for physical activity, whether you want to call it recess, PE, or whatever. It will focus on activities that might be life-long joys, whether team sports, or solitary running, hiking, skiing, etc. I think religion class aimed at learning the basic tenants of all world religions (probably incorporated into history and literature) would be good. Not as evangelism, but as learning to understand the rest of humanity.

There will be NO standardized tests of any kind, and teachers will be encouraged to write tests that really test a student's mastery. No multiple-choice, but a combination of short answer, essay, and analysis. Nobody will learn to write 5-paragraph essays. They will learn to write cogent, thoughtful essays of a length necessary to state and support the thesis.

Grades will not be given. For the purpose of transcripts, grades will be recorded, but will not be released except for specific requests. The theory of this is that students will be putting forth their best efforts at all times, aiming for mastery of their subject, rather than trying to figure out what to put for an answer that will give them the best grade. Homework will be assigned solely for the purpose of practicing and repeating necessary skills, but not for a grade. Students will understand that doing homework will help them master the material faster.

Multi-age classes and subjects will be encouraged, as will collaboration between teachers to teach lessons that are coordinated with other subjects. Students reaching the necessary level of subject mastery may move on to the next level, whether it takes one quarter or three quarters to make that next level. I like a trimester system, because it allows for more intensive exposure to more subjects.

Teachers will be in charge of the school. There will be no administration making top-down decisions. (There will be administrative assistants doing the necessary tasks like attendance, record keeping, scheduling etc. Just not someone making decisions about the classroom.) Teachers will be like owners or shareholders of the school. All teachers will be hired based on creativity in teaching, years of experience, and knowledge of subjects. One would not have to be state certified to teach in this school, but would have to demonstrate a high level of skill in teaching and knowledge of the subject. At least one teaching assistant will be in each classroom. These will be hired from a pool of new college graduates and/or new to teaching professionals. All teachers will be expected to mentor the teaching assistants. All teachers will be expected to work in a highly collaborative capacity with fellow teachers, even co-teaching whenever possible and practical. Teaching assistants may move into teacher positions when they have received a certain level. I don't know what that would be. Maybe five years of assisting/being mentored before being eligible to be a full teacher.

To accommodate the additional time needed for assessment and administrative tasks asked of these teachers, one day a week will be given to teachers for collaboration, inservice education, and admin. That day will be one in which students will focus on individual studying, writing, presenting, under the supervision of the teaching assistants. Teaching assistants will also receive one day per week for in-depth learning experiences with mentor teachers.

The school day will start later than most schools now. Maybe 9:00 a.m. It will end later as a result. Probably around 4:00 or even 5:00. The school year will start in September, with three months in session and one-month breaks as follows: Sep/Oct/Nov will be first trimester. December: break. Jan/Feb/March is second trimester. April is break. May/June/July is third trimester. August is break. This kind of schedule avoids summer breaks that get way too long for most students I know who are highly motivated. It also allows plenty of time for extended family vacations. Students at the high school level may be encouraged to use their breaks for internships, self study, or even work. Those who plan to take SATs or ACTs or other tests (not required by the school) might use that time for study aimed at those tests. Perhaps, if parents were interested, special classes could be offered during breaks--to meet their childcare needs, mostly. Things kind of like summer or spring break day camps do now.

In this school, all teachers and other personnel will be paid a highly competitive salary. (Fiat on the funding, remember?) A professional level salary. For each year a teaching assistant stays, their salary will increase until they are eligible to be a full teacher. Full teacher pay will reward teachers for longevity, creativity, extra learning opportunities, and so forth. Maybe there will be some sort of master teacher levels that will allow for further pay increases. The idea being that teaching is one of the most important professions and should be paid accordingly, and in a professional manner.

I realize there are probably many practical and realistic issues with some of these ideas. This is just me, thinking of what sounds good. I welcome input and further discussion of these ideas and more. Because I'm really sick of the way it's been done for the last ten years. And I live in the best school district in the state. And I've been pretty happy with the education my kids received. But that has been a factor almost exclusively of having really fantastic teachers who teach for love and having really motivated, smart kids. All students should have teachers like the ones my kids have been fortunate enough to have had. And I think we need to put education back in the teachers' court. Train teachers through mentoring and expect high levels of work from our students.