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Ten of the best school-reform ideas from readers

Many readers gave ideas on grading and testing reform.

It seems like everyone has an opinion these days on what it will take to “fix” American public education. But research suggests that many of the ideas being touted by some of the leading school-reform advocates—such as merit pay, charter schools, and value-added assessment of teachers—have seen mixed results at best.

Recently, we asked readers, via our newsletters: “If you could recommend only one idea for school reform, what would it be and why?” Here, we present—from No. 10 to No. 1—the best, most original, and most honest answers we received in response.

What do you think of these ideas? And, what ideas of your own would you like to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments section of this story.

Go to page 2 to begin the list…

10. Get disruptive student behavior under control.

Our recent story “Teacher who video-recorded disruptive student suing over job loss” touched a nerve with readers, many of whom expressed sympathy for the teacher in question and noted that students cannot learn when others are disrupting class.

Better training for both teachers and administrators in how to deal with disruptive students—and support from administrators in removing these students from the classroom when necessary—would go a long way toward improving achievement, many readers noted.

Vinny Esposito, a former teacher and counselor, said he would recommend “a behavior specialist team to determine how best to meet the needs of disruptive students.” He added: “Such students must be removed from the classroom, decide to enjoy learning, or be placed in alternative programs.”

9. Hold students to higher standards of learning … without the draconian consequences for failure that encourage schools to ‘bend the rules.’

While the No Child Left Behind Act has drawn attention to the needs of students who often were marginalized in the past, its heavy sanctions for schools not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress in every subgroup has led to a “dumbing down” of standards to ensure that more students pass.

Finding a better balance between flexibility and accountability would allow states and school districts to adhere to more rigorous standards without the fear of losing funding as a result, says Emil Butler of the Grayson County Day Report Center.

“‘No Child Left Behind’ seems to mean ‘no child held accountable to any meaningful level of academic achievement,’” Bulter wrote. “Our schools now have no fewer than seven types of high school diploma. The lowest of these is commonly referred to as the ‘breath diploma’; if they can put breath on a mirror, they can get a diploma. I deal with convicted felons on a daily basis, and I am appalled at the number of young adults who have high school diplomas but cannot read. In fact, many can hardly write their own names. Most of these folks have convictions for drug-related offenses, and most do not have, and have never had, employment of any consequence. Little wonder, since it would be impossible for them to even complete an employment application. Equally astonishing is the fact that, as reported by the Associated Press in December 2010, almost 25 percent of recent high school graduates fail the U.S. Army entrance test (a passing score for the Army is 31 out of 99; higher scores are required for the other branches of service). The article notes that a typical question is: ‘If 2 plus X equals 4, what is the value of X?’”

He concluded: “I’m afraid that ‘No Child Left Behind’ is ensuring that our country is being left behind.”

8.Get rid of grade levels.

Some forward-thinking school systems, such as the Kansas City, Missouri, School District, have begun experimenting with the concept of grouping students by ability instead of age—an idea that Kurt D. Steinbach, a social studies, ESL, and ELA teacher, agrees with wholeheartedly.

“End age grading. In other words, end the practice whereby students are assigned and assumed to be in or on their proper grade level according to their age instead of their (demonstrated) ability level,” he wrote. “No more age grading would eliminate the need for social promotion and the stigma associated with being held back. With students at different ‘grade levels’ in each subject area, the problems for students not reading and writing at the 3rd grade level by the end of the 3rd grade (after which students take two years to catch up for every year they fall behind) would disappear.”

7. Raise the bar on teacher (and administrator) certification.

Higher standards for becoming a teacher or school administrator was an idea favored by Atila Mantels, an editor and public relations chair for Kiwanis Club of Pulaski Heights in Little Rock, Ark.

“Do not issue a teaching certificate to anyone who cannot score at least 19 on all four sections (English, math, reading, science) of the ACT—this score is slightly below the ‘grade-level’ score for high school seniors,” Mantel wrote. “Ideally, the same requirement would apply to anyone serving as an administrator within the educational system. Though my suggestion for educational reform comes at least two decades too late for implementation, it still targets the essential problem of an entrenched educational bureaucracy staffed by undereducated educators.”

6. Open community-based computer centers so children from low-income families aren’t left behind.

“Create computer centers, staffed by trained, paid teachers in community centers and churches that are in our poorest neighborhoods,” recommended Terri Yearicks, network manager and ITV director for Griffin Elementary School in Florida.

“The biggest trend I see is the incorporation of online education [in] K-12. In fact, here in Florida, it has become state law that every student take one online class in order to graduate high school. While the idea is good, it does not provide computers and internet access to our many poor students. I work at a Title 1 school with an 83-percent poverty level, so I speak from experience. These centers need to be totally funded, including the teacher’s salary of no less than $20 an hour, by local businesses. The businesses would then have better trained young people and would receive a tax write-off for their involvement in the project. In addition, teachers struggling to make ends meet can choose to work the few extra hours a day to supplement their waning income. Plus, this would give our poorest students access to technology so that truly, NO child will be left behind!”

5. Invest more money in school librarians and media centers.

At a time when many school districts are cutting school librarian positions to close widening budget gaps, reader Rebecca Vasilakis believes districts should be doing the exact opposite. Well-trained librarians and well-stocked school media centers, she says, are essential for helping students learn key information literacy skills—and for helping teachers integrating digital resources into their instruction.

“I would upgrade or place in every school a school library media center that functions as a Learning Commons and staff it with a school librarian (teacher librarian [or] library media specialist) who takes learning into the 21st century,” Vasilakis wrote.

4. Move from seat time to learning competency as a basis for student promotion.

Competency-based learning is “a fundamental reform, a requirement for next-generation learning, and creates a student-centered focus that changes all of our assumptions about the current system—allowing students to move on when ready,” says Susan Patrick, executive director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning and a former ed-tech director for the U.S. Department of Education.

3. Boost students’ access to the internet at school and at home.

An earlier suggestion was to make sure there are computer centers for students in low-income areas—but William Burkhead, assistant principal at Plymouth North High School in Massachusetts, would take that one step further.

“Get every student in America online access at school and at home,” he wrote. “The World Wide Web represents a fountain of knowledge, in the form of information, research, innovation, communication, and growth. I believe this to be a fundamental right of ALL students. Kids without access to the WWW are at a distinct disadvantage and represent the chasm we have in achievement gaps. This is a solid starting point for reform, as it levels the playing field for all students. Before we can talk about having an iPad in every student’s hand at school, let’s make sure every student has access to the world [from wherever they are].”

2. Less testing, more creativity and inspiration.

“Let teachers teach. Education is too involved in testing, as if test scores are the goal of education,” wrote David Wickemeyer, student magazine advisor and technology volunteer at Union Middle School in San Jose, Calif. “Testing cannot score creativity, insight, [or] new ways of looking at things—these are the skills more important in the real word.”

He continued: “Employers don’t care if you scored a 689 on SAT Math Level II. They want to know if you can solve problems, see a project though, come up with new ideas, even work well with others (not a socialist idea alone). If I was Harry Potter, with my magic wand, I would free all teachers from the bonds of standardized testing (which isn’t standardized at all) and let them freely teach.”

1. Help policy makers truly understand the needs and challenges of public schools—and their students.

Virginia Anderson, district instructional technologist for Columbus Independent School District in Texas, had what might be the best idea for fostering real school reform that works: “All legislators should be required to teach for one day in an elementary classroom.”

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