Changing Educational Norms to Address Literacy

I know that readers of this blog probably assign me to the doomsayer caste when it comes to literacy based on my previous posts, but I am concerned about the state of our educational system and our decline from the world’s educational leader to a pack follower whose standing keeps receding. Today, I want to consider one possible solution to the problem I see. I want to suggest a change in how education works in America.

Everything good or bad about education boils down to the classroom. A good teacher can inspire and can educate; a poor teacher simply takes up space. The key is to make better use of good teachers and if you can’t rid the school of poor teachers, improve them. We need to remember that students spend more awake time in school, under the care of educators, and doing school activities and homework than with any other care provider or doing non-school-related activities/work.

This puzzle has perplexed greater minds than mine and perhaps I have a simplistic perspective, but I toss out these ideas as discussion starting points.

My first suggestion is to do away with “education” degrees and require every teacher to obtain advanced degrees (notice the multiple) in their specialty subject area. It is not that these advanced degrees shouldn’t include the “how to teach” aspects, it is that the emphasis should be on subject matter and not on administrative matter.

Schools should provide incentives for this, including the basic incentive of keeping one’s job. And, because time is limited, school schedules should be devised to free teachers for part of the day to pursue these degrees, not force them to do it only after school hours and on weekends. Schools also should be responsible for up to 75% of the cost of getting these advanced degrees, but under no circumstance 100%. Just as in the private sector, teachers should have some responsibility for doing what is necessary to keep and maintain their job — as long as they know about the requirement before accepting the employment.

Second, there must be a core group of literacy-related courses that every student must take and do well in as part of graduation requirements. Even students who prefer to take a vocational path rather than a college preparatory path. There is no reason why every person, regardless of his or her ultimate career choice, should not be equally literate, certainly at least through the middle school years, if not through the whole primary and secondary education career.

Third, I suggest a change to the current process where students have teacher A for kindergarten, B for first grade, C for second grade, and so on. Instead, we should divide the curriculum into broad fields — say Language Arts, History, Science, and Foreign Language — and we should create teaching teams of educators who have advanced degrees in these specialty areas. In this case, a team of 4 teachers, and this team will be responsible for student education from kindergarten through fifth/sixth grade. After fifth/sixth grade a new team would take over for the middle school years, and perhaps a third team for the high school years of tenth through twelfth grades, although we could consider returning to the current rotation system for these last years.

Teacher pay, bonuses, and performance evaluations would be team based. This would give each team member an incentive to help poorer-skilled members improve or move them out of the system. It would also enable scheduling to occur that frees a team member to pursue advanced degrees in his/her specialty. And it would encourage — if not require – team members to better integrate subject matter teaching among the various disciplines.

Consider a class on Latin American history. The Language Arts teacher could encourage students to read Simon Bolivar’s biography and discuss how his circumstances shaped his views; the Foreign Language teacher could introduce Bolivar’s writings and the writing of his contemporaries, including local newspaper accounts of daily life, in Spanish, and have the student’s read them to understand what it was like to have lived in those times; the History teacher could discuss the surrounding events and Bolivar’s place in them, the history of his campaigns as well as the history of the places where he fought and the people he inspired; and the Science teacher could discuss how technological events of the day helped or hindered Bolivar, what effect they may have had on his strategies — or the strategies of any similarly situated person, as well as on those of Bolivar’s opponents.

Or how about the Lunar Society of the 18th century. How many students (or teachers, for that matter) are familiar with either the Society or the effects it had on our knowledge. Members included, among others, Joseph Priestly, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgewood; and it was multinational, not limited to the England. For Language Arts and History, students could read and discuss The Lunar Men: Five Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jennifer Uglow; for Science, students could discuss how Priestly “discovered” oxygen and the scientific method of the time, as well as how the group influenced Erasmus Darwin and whether that subsequently filtered down to Charles Darwin; Foreign Language could discuss the biological classification system devised by Carolus Linnaeus and its influence on the group.

If the teachers were very creative, they could each portray a character from a different era of history from their particular specialties and have a roundtable discussion of how they viewed a seismic historical event, such as the French Revolution: What effect did it have on language? Science? History? The arts?

OK, perhaps my examples are not a great ones, but you get the idea. Students would be taught more than isolated events because there would need to be coordination among the specialties. Students would learn that disciplines are interconnected and interrelated — they do not stand in isolation. Students would learn that there are many paths to understanding a problem and to solving it. Such understanding should lead to better comprehension and, hopefully, inspire curiosity. And the better the students do, the better the team does in its evaluation.

This team approach, because it doesn’t rely on compartmentalization of subject matter, will bring a connectedness to the process of education that is sorely lacking today. I believe that as students see the interconnectedness of the various disciplines, they will strive to become more literate — they will learn the necessary analytical skills that form the core of literacy and comprehension.

Subjects, like teachers, are, today, too compartmentalized. And it is too difficult to coordinate lessons especially as classrooms shift hourly. By making teachers work as teams with a set group of students for whom they are responsible not just for an hour, a day, a week but for multiple years, schools will bring a sense of stability to student and teacher lives. Students won’t have to deal with the anxieties of changing teachers and classrooms and trying to shift mental gears as the subject matter changes. Teachers will learn about their students and will be able to focus on what is necessary to improve their comprehension skills, as well as provide any necessary individual aid.

These ideas may not be panaceas for all that ails education, and perhaps these ideas won’t work at all, but unless fundamental changes are made to what and how we teach our students and how they learn, the declining trend in comprehension and literacy will only be extended, not reversed.

reposted with permission from An American Editor

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