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Let’s Re-examine our Education SystemBy Horacio D. Lewis, PhD
Now that Delaware has won $100 million for its well written and coordinated Federal “Race to the Top” school reform application, I ask:  can we now deliver what works for our kids and stop the nationally inspired widespread dismissal and exodus of those who teach them?  To do so, we must thoughtfully look at our education system and make significant corrections in the wake of questionable desegregation achievements and misplaced priorities.  Four major principles governed my behavior during 10+ year tenure teaching in four Delaware public high schools and 20 years as a State Education Administrator:  1. Care about students, for most students don’t really care what you know until they know that you care.  2. Treat students with utmost respect/courtesy, dignity and fairness.  3.  Coach/guide students responsibly using first-rate real-world mastered information, and 4. Follow through with sanctions without engagement, when a disciplinary instruction/command is disobeyed.  The first three are easy if you are generally a polite person who believes in equity, the sanctity of human beings and their capacity to learn and improve their lot. The fourth takes more time and patience.  For example (during an interaction with a moderately disruptive student at the beginning of class): Teacher--“You need to sit in your assigned seat so that we may begin class.”  Student--“Why?, Johnny is not sitting in his seat.” Teacher--“Right now I am talking to you and I am asking you to sit in your assigned seat!”  “Thank you.”  If student continues to argue or ignore command as class begins, then the teacher needs to act with a penalty which may include extracting the student from the classroom, with administrative assistance (accessed by classroom phone), if necessary, to minimize further class delay/distraction.  Here the teacher does not take the bait and engage in a discussion regarding Johnny’s behavior.  This “why are you picking on me” ploy is often used by disruptive students in order to get the class off-track as they take control—the education of all is held hostage for several minutes in this scenario, and the teacher almost always ends up losing.  Johnny’s behavior as well as the deportment of the often 30 or more students in the class would be addressed, if required, following this incident; one issue at a time. Indeed, I handled such situations by inviting offending students to step outside to “my office” (the school hallway) for a brief reprimand which oftentimes was enough to redirect the behavior.The teacher would also follow-up, at the end of the day, with a phone call or letter to the parent/s or guardian/s with an invitation for a face to face meeting if needed, depending on gravity of offense and other student infractions; all this, in the midst of correcting up to 180 test papers, preparing lesson plans/exams, making copies of student exercises and completing the dreaded content standards curriculum mapping and Delaware Performance Appraisal System (DPAS II) teacher evaluation forms.  A teacher’s plate is very full even on a good day.  Because of this and other reasons, several teachers have left the profession; some for jobs paying half their teaching salaries!  And while some dismissals are legitimate, many teachers have been unfairly fired by a system which conspires against them, driven by unruly students and incompetent administrators.I attended elementary and high schools, and completed most of my undergraduate work in the Republic of Panamá where we were assigned to specific learning tracks since it was clear to educators that not every student would or could become a neuroscientist.  How many of these do we need anyway?  Hence, some students were placed (often by choice) in vocational education courses depending on their abilities, achievement levels, commitment, behavior and interests.  I was in the other group (Bachillerato en Ciencias) destined to continue academic courses which later enabled me to earn several college degrees in Panamá and the United States.  Perhaps that’s why I am not as proficient as many of my former classmates who did quite well building houses, fixing air conditioning/plumbing/computer systems, and making more money than I.  That could well be because I did not become a neuroscientist.  Moreover, students in my day attended either a morning or evening shift schedule which helped to save on construction and related school costs.We need as many students in the vocational tracks as we do in the academic tracks in order to function as a society.  Everyone can still be all that they want to be, but only if they are fully prepared and can, in fact, do the required work.  Let us stop pretending that all students are equipped to do everything offered in our school curriculum.  Some will always be more capable than others in specific areas.  We should not continue to set students up for failure having them believe they can perform as well as those with different abilities, interests, discipline, training and work-ethic, without developing and demonstrating adequate effort and sacrifice and skill.  Indeed, Schools should stop basing success only on test scores which are determined by academic proficiency!  I once had a high ranking student who presented his senior thesis on a futuristic house he would build using green energy.  It was a great presentation with good research and cool technology.  But guess what?  He forgot to build bathrooms in this wonderful environmentally friendly house—great academic student with little vocational education skills; outhouse anyone? As we discuss how to spend US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s billions to improve schools, we may want to take another look at our education system.  Let us train and retain good teachers, train and retain a smaller number of non-meddling administrators, and re-distribute students based on interests, promise and actual evaluation results.  In essence, students who are not suited for traditional high school should be assigned to a trade/technical school or could be moved directly to college. Others, with the help of parents, et al., should be paired with a master trainer/worker as an apprentice for a specified job not requiring a high school diploma per se, or sent to Boot Camp.  A GED or related studies could be completed during this training period if desired.  The school in these instances would integrate alternate placements as a measure of success.  This discussion does not use the word “tracking” in the traditional discriminatory sense of yesteryear when students were stereotypically segregated, often by race or ethnicity, in less rigorous classes.  Further, the concept of fairness as presented herein, promotes diversity and non-prejudicial behavior in the entire instructional fabric consistent with my desegregation efforts when I worked for the Delaware Department of Education (previously Department of Public Instruction).If the United States Department of Education funding is to be used wisely, we should understand that every student is not college material (or at least not yet); we need to prepare students for other needed trades; and schools ought to be configured in completely different ways where all participants are learners, and well-behaved students are guided to accomplish specific goals.  That is, instead of the current widespread firing of teachers, we need to keep public school education alive by eliminating top heavy organizations and developing new ones where teachers are paid a decent salary in keeping with their skill levels and effectiveness.  Clearly, if we are serious about frugality and accountability in education, rather than dismissing teachers who are the very engines of rubber-meets-the-road classrooms, we should start by downsizing or completely dismantling the Delaware Department of Education and district offices where there is not only a disconnect with teaching/classroom reality but a lack of educational innovation and a prevalence of idleness, a pervasive search for “administrivia” and semblance of busyness.  Likewise, boards of education need to stop wasting the people’s money on out-of-state consulting groups (e.g. Christina’s recent $350,000 spree), faddish & punitive high stakes tests that don’t prove much (e.g. DSTP), meaningless non-transparent meetings and ineffective professional development programs.  And for heaven’s sake, let us stop the déjà vu 5 year recycling of instructional practices!  Remember Back to Basics, Madeline Hunter (“anticipatory set”), No Child Left Behind, Cooperative Learning, Multiple Intelligences, Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), Multicultural Education, Differentiated Instruction, Power of Positive Students (POPS), Invitational Schooling, New Directions, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Vision 2015...?  Will we ever stick with a few good programs?Finally, if students are not in class to learn and achieve at high levels, there should be an exit door after an initial trial/adjustment period.  For at the end of the day, students must realize that it is they, with adequate guidance, who need to make the required life changes which will decide their present and future.  The blame game should actually stop with the student!  They can even attempt to renegotiate assigned tracks by proving that they have the ability to do the required work and display the proper behavior required for success.  Pedagogical environments are fully functional when teachers are motivated, well paid, knowledgeable, treated with professional respect and disruptive behaviors are minimal.  Some of this discussion and practice is already in place in some form (e.g. Sussex County Technical School, Delaware Military Academy, The Charter School of Wilmington, Delaware School for the Deaf, The Moyer Academy, St. Andrew’s School…); it is time to make it commonplace.(Dr. Horacio D. Lewis, a Jefferson Award for Public Service recipient, is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Spanish & Education at Delaware State University, President of the Fairness Institute and Humanities Scholar with the Delaware Humanities Forum.  He was an Education Associate and Program Director at the Delaware Department of Public Instruction/Department of Education for 20 years prior to teaching high school.  He also taught at over 10 universities throughout the country including Indiana University (IN) and Brown Universities (RI).   Contact: horaciolewis@horaciolewis.com)