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A very straight-forward way is available to quickly and effectively improve American public schools. It is not expensive, and may even be less expensive than existing standard efforts. It involves operation of three PHYSICALLY SEPARATE (at least two city blocks apart) parallel schools in a District. Attendance at specific schools would not depend on academic ability or knowledge at all, but on each individual student's social compatibility. Absolutely no discrimination exists because each student has the personal choice available to attend any of them.
Initially, every new student would have unlimited choice of which school to attend. As long as a student reasonably followed generally acceptable social rules in his/her conduct, that choice would remain unlimited. However, if a student exhibits violent behavior, or regularly behaves disruptively, or regularly and openly flaunts the established rules of society and school and classroom, that choice would become restricted. No Principal or teacher would determine or control such a limitation; the student would. And, even if a student's behavior caused required attendance at a specific school, a number of ways are always available for him/her to earn enough respect to again have broader choice.
A central premise here is that there are some students that need to learn very basic inter-personal skills in order to eventually become part of adult society. Existing public school systems don't have very effective ways of dealing with such students, and they tend to represent danger and disruption for an entire educational environment. Once such students learn adequate behavior skills (and attitudes), such students could become welcome participants in any classroom. And therefore in any later adult environment. This essay is meant to offer a possibility in that direction.
As an ex-Teacher, I know that even a single student who has uncontrolled behavior can nearly totally destroy any Teacher's efforts at Teaching. Such students quickly learn that the Teacher has no authority to even try to control them, and many find the situation to be a stage on which to perform to impress other students. When a Classroom has more than one such student competing for the attention of the other students, it can be essentially uncontrollable, where the Teacher cannot Teach anything at all and is instead simply attempting to do something resembling babysitting. No one wins in such environments.
Nearly all potential "solutions" for the terrible situation of the American public school system seem to be "top-down" concepts. A central bureaucracy decides the rules and conditions (and money) and then they try to impose that somewhat artificial environment on masses of students. Won't work! That is proven every day in millions of Classrooms across America. People, students, are a diverse lot! Rigid structures and rules will always fail. In addition, the whole concept of education is far more complicated than normally perceived. Rather than a Teacher jamming thoughts into students' heads, it is crucially important to enable the many students to first be in a receptive condition for learning to occur. Rather than any authoritarian, top-down structure, THIS approach is more of a "grass roots" approach, where each individual student actually usually has most of the control of what choices are available to him/her. For this reason alone, it seems like a viable possibility! Some of the students might even come to appreciate that element of choice, rather than having to entirely live within authoritarian decrees from some distant bureaucrat! There is an aspect of a sense of respect for the students, rather than a sense of being in an overwhelming authoritarian environment.
The American public school system faces an assortment of huge obstacles. Many students are apathetic. Some teachers are unmotivated or incompetent. Some schools include physically dangerous environments. All school administrators are limited by various discrimination laws in doing much about any of this. Some of the parents seem to either be too busy to care about any of this or they simply do not care, seeming to pawn off their kids to Schools as a sort of Daycare so they can live a separate life for a few hours each day. As a result, many parents who actually do care have justifiable concerns for the safety and the education of their children. Many feel that their only valid choices are to either send their kids to incredibly expensive private schools or to move to a house in a district or town known for adequate school system performance.
There IS another alternative! The public school system COULD respond appropriately to the diversity of school children WITHOUT discriminating against anyone! ALL students will be able to receive the best possible education for that student. The cost to accomplish this can be very reasonable --- it might even be LESS EXPENSIVE overall than existing system expenditures! Students would attend one of three physically separate, different schools, NOT dependent on educational achievement or ability or test results (which would be potentially discriminatory) but rather, dependent on a number of aspects of behavior. Students that generally do their homework and attend classes and behave reasonably would always have the choice to transfer to whichever of the three Schools that he/she might choose. Often, that might be the CALM School, which would nearly certainly quickly become a high-motivation school, that could accomplish the most educating, because there would be very few Classroom disruptions or incidents of violence there. Even students that had extremely low grades or test scores could attend that school, as long as their BQ (Behavior Quotient) was satisfactory (see below). Low-achieving students can often thrive in such a motivating environment, and mixtures of students of different achievement levels would probably be good for all of the students. Distant Education Bureaucrats have always talked about the advantages of that environment, without actually understanding what they were talking about!
The MEDIAN School would greatly resemble what all Schools used to be like. It would likely become an intermediate-motivation school and would have many "normal behavior" students. The third school RUDE would be where disruptive or violent or totally unmotivated students would attend class, and that school WOULD have metal detectors and extremely strict discipline.
Note that these Name Designations are simply for descriptive purposes here and some suitable actual School Names would be selected that would not represent any socially discriminatory reasons for students to try to humiliate each other any more than they normally do.Each school year in a student's education would be treated separately, so a student in the (RUDE) trouble-makers' school who matured and discovered motivation, could begin to consistently do his/her homework and attend classes and behave in a civil manner, and he/she would have the opportunity to request a Transfer to attend one of the other two schools the following year. Such Requests for Transfer could be submitted at any time during the School year as well. Motivated students, of all educational abilities, would have the opportunity to attend the CALM school in a motivated, vibrant, safe educational environment.
(There are no precise ways of describing these three school environments. I have chosen to use both levels of motivation and descriptors of social compatibility to describe them, but that would not always be the case. An extremely motivated, extremely intelligent, but extremely disruptive student could certainly wind up in the RUDE school. Similarly, a well-behaved, possibly quiet, student with limited ability and minimal motivation could easily spend an entire education in the CALM, high-motivation school.)
Anyone who has interacted with the Public School system quickly sees the great diversity of motivations and abilities of students. Up to about thirty years ago, students were "tracked" into classes with other students with similar education and ability. This situation allowed teachers to teach at a rate fast enough to not bore the students but slow enough to allow most to grasp each subject area. Then, the Federal courts felt that minority school children were being effectively discriminated against by this system. The courts found that such children were commonly tracked together in the "lower tracks" due to poor performance on standardized IQ-type tests. When a teacher taught such a class, it was felt that possibly less effort would be expended in teaching them. Whether or not that was true, the conclusion was that such tests were biased TOWARD white children and AGAINST minorities who may be less proficient at taking tests. The net effect of all this was to make "tracking" illegal. All students were to be distributed equally and randomly to eliminate any "tracking" and school busing was added to eliminate inter-school differences. These added aspects were intended to accomplish an additional goal. By putting disadvantaged minority youth into the same classes with white, motivated, conscientious children, it was hoped that the disadvantaged youth would become motivated to match their white classmates.
Admirable goals, to be sure. They even sound pretty logical. In some individual cases, those goals were achieved. However, in general, the ending of the tracking premise has led to an much inferior modern public educational system. Various specific causes seem to be involved. Three seem to be particularly significant.
Most of the time I tried to aim at the bulk of the kids, around Third Grade level. Even though I was an enthusiastic, idealistic High School Teacher, I found myself teaching effectively Third Grade Science to Ninth Grade High School students (with a Ninth Grade Science book which virtually none of them could read!) This was frustrating in itself for me, but I was also very aware that my 50 slower students still didn't have a clue of what was going on and simultaneously, my (one) "advanced" (7th Grade level) girl student was continuously bored and not learning anything. Occasionally, maybe once a month, I taught a class aimed at her level to maintain my own sanity. Occasionally, I would try to teach at First Grade level to try to motivate the slower students. In all cases, most of the students were constantly bored. After all, this was probably the seventh time they were being taught Third Grade science! Absolutely none would have gained any reason for developing personal motivation or any inspiration in pursuing science as a career.
You might note that I had a valid question for the Bureaucratic hotshots that think they run the Public Education System! Should I have focused all my efforts on a Third Grade mentality, in other words, conceding that one 7.2 to never having anything to learn during the year? But that STILL left about 50 of the slower students, Second and First Grade readers, where they would also have been 100% neglected? Or would the brilliant minds that run these systems instruct me to exclusively teach the First and Second Grade readers, thereby discarding around 2/3 of my students with not a thing of interest during around 160 hours of class time? THEY have all the answers, right? So, if they had given me instructions back them when I had this dilemma, what would they have told me to do?
The problem is that they have absolutely no idea, because they have never even ever confronted the actual real-life situation which exists in virtually every public school classroom today! If they would have ever understood the situation, then they would have understood that ANY of their Ivory Tower solutions necessarily discards massive numbers of students. It is really quite disgusting what they force the American public educational system to do to so many hundreds of thousands of kids every year. Destroy enthusiasm. Destroy creativity. Destroy excitement. Destroy intellectual interest and ability. How could it be no wonder that obscure countries in Africa now show better student performance than US kids do?
How could anyone have believed that my time or any teacher's time is worth so little to simply be a day-care or babysitter? Just weeks earlier, I had had unlimited enthusiasm regarding all the minds that I would be able to mold. Except for Contractual obligations, three weeks would have been sufficient for me! But I had made some promises that involved a total of four years being necessary, and it was a grim future to look forward to.
The premise being offered here is an alternate solution, which does not involve the environment described above but still complies with all Laws. Each and every student would be in an intellectually and socially appropriate atmosphere for greatest opportunity for learning. There would result some variation of level between schools or classes, but ANY INDIVIDUAL STUDENT COULD ATTEND ANY OF THEM relatively irrespective of his or her native ability.
This new system is based on student/parent behavior and motivation rather than the student's test-based perceived ability. In the first couple Grades, all students would attend similar classes. Specific additional new records, possibly even on Report Cards, would be maintained regarding each student to maintain a year-long cumulative motivation rating, or what I call Behavior Quotient. As a starting point for discussion, I would suggest something like the following:
Many of these matters could be automatically maintained by the school's existing computer system (attendance subjects). The others could easily be added to a school's current record-keeping system with very little new expense or administrative time or effort. As a student's education progresses, this cumulative year's total would be used to determine which of three different schools he/she would attend for the following year. Since a well-behaved, motivated student could easily accumulate over 200 plus points, even a few "mess ups" could still happen by "real" kids and still total the +100 necessary for entrance to the most-motivated CALM school for the next year. Most students would not even have to rely on parents earning them bonus points to accomplish this goal. Scores above zero would qualify for the moderately motivated school next year. Scores below zero would cause attendance at a school for unmotivated students. Depending on a student's behavior and history and that student's desires regarding attending a specific School, he/she may or may not need to convince parents to attend some events in order to garner some extra points.
Please note that the most passive, quiet, lowest-ability student would receive +90 for perfect attendance and another +90 for turning in all the required homework, so that student would easily have his/her choice of schools. Each student would have access to his/her current BQ score for that year, possibly on the Report Cards. If, late in a school year, a student was at +80 and really wanted to attend the CALM (highest motivation) school the next year, he/she could volunteer to help several teachers or his/her parents could start attending PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences.Flexibility of This System
An appeal system would exist for making adjustments for extenuating circumstances (in both directions) and for showing flexibility in borderline cases. Possibly a GRANT of a certain number of points might be given to a specific student, due to some specific personal situation. A child who lived in an apartment with 12 siblings might be GRANTED some leeway regarding turning in all homework. Individuals or parents might even elect NOT to attend a higher motivation school if desired (possibly to participate in a stronger sports team or take a more comprehensive Auto Shop class or for any other reason.)
A hyper-active student or one otherwise affected by medical or mental conditions would have the opportunity of Appeal regarding a specific personal choice of school.
Since each year is treated separately, at any point any student could easily change behavior, attendance and/or homework patterns to qualify for a higher-motivated school for the following year. No one would be doomed to a "low track" forever. Even a student with poor study habits and low standardized testing scores could qualify for and belong in the highest-motivation school (although he/she may initially get poor grades as a result.) Such a student would be in an environment where improvement was likely, so even initial poor grades might quickly improve. In such a school environment, teachers could encourage students who were grasping the material quickly to help those students that might be having more difficulty, and the students would probably all grow from such experiences.
There might be other low-accomplishment students who might CHOOSE the MEDIAN or RUDE School because of a personal concern of feeling dumb among a lot of smart and motivated kids. Such choices might be discouraged, but they would always be available to each student.Individual Student's Choice
Another important aspect of this system is the (publicized) length of the school day. If the (RUDE) low-motivation school day length is 6 hours, then the (MEDIAN) mid-mot day length should be 7 hours and the (CALM) hi-mot day length should be 8 hours. Fore-knowledge of this will help students/parents to decide and determine their individual motivation levels. The longer day length will also allow the more motivated students more time to learn complex concepts, and to include additional elective classes.
Students intending to attend College should (reasonably) try to regularly be in the (CALM) hi-mot school and not be in the less motivated Schools for more than two or three years in the twelve years of school. Colleges might realistically not count classes in the (RUDE) low-mot school as contributing to high school graduation requirements.
Most people argue about who is to blame for causing such disruptive and dangerous behaviors, and they blame TV, movies, graphic news, lax parents, lack of role models, etc. Any or all of that might be true, but American society doesn't have any way of greatly improving any of those factors, even if they ARE valid. The ideas presented in this essay essentially concede that such students are going to exist because of the attitudes of modern American society. It just seems obvious to me to collect such disruptive (and often dangerous) students together in one place (a separate RUDE School) where intense discipline could be applied. After all, eventually, those students will be out in society, and if they never learn responsibility and consequences and discipline, they will be society's problems throughout their adulthood. If they are put in an environment that is essentially a Military School, they might learn acceptable social behaviors for later adult life. They certainly do not have any incentive to learn such things in the modern environments of Public Schools. At the same time, the remaining students (and Teachers) would be able to be in an environment where productive educational learning could flourish. Given the circumstances, it seems like an obvious direction to try.
I just wish to help in any way possible to improve a terrible situation, and I am surprised at the many "shallow" approaches that are commonly tried. The ones that show much effect tend to be incredibly expensive, in some cases being on the order of $40,000 per student per school year. For less than that, a school district could hire individual personal live-in tutors for each of the students! Such "demonstrations" will obviously show positive results, but they are impracticably expensive for large scale application. The approach of this essay uses existing Schools, existing Teachers, and existing materials and equipment, and it is certain to show spectacular improvements in test scores of the "peaceful" (CALM) Schools, probable good improvements in the MEDIAN Schools and possibly even educational improvements in the (RUDE) "problem children" Schools, too.
Traditionally, it would have been unimaginable if a School student would interrupt an instructor's lesson by standing up, walking over, and punching another student. The offending student would be seriously punished, and possibly expelled from that School. In modern American Public School Classrooms, students all know that the teachers are not allowed to strike or even touch them, and some Teachers have been sent to jail for doing so. They also know that the School administration will only fill out some paperwork about the matter and send the student right back to the same Classroom, essentially without punishment, and often, without even any reprimand. It is amazing. The Instructor is often NOT in charge of the Classroom. In America, in most Public School Classrooms, at least 10 of the students believe that they can do absolutely anything they please, and the Instructor is considered a minor part of the control dynamics. With peer pressures important for young kids, their various actions tend to encourage each other to more and more disruptive behavior, which often escalates to actual physical violence. And the Instructor cannot even get involved to try to establish control, and becomes a bystander.
All School Districts seem to be conditioned to assume that they need to spend many millions of dollars to provide an education for each of these two categories of children. I ask WHY?
Imagine the CALM classroom described above, but which now includes BOTH a child in a wheelchair AND a child who is totally blind.
FIRST, the OTHER students would have a wonderful opportunity to learn about kids who have very different lives than they have. SECOND, there would NOT be any sense of discrimination at any time. In fact, it seems certain that MANY of the other students would WANT TO HELP such students to learn all the class material. THIRD, it seems certain that at least a few of the other students would become interested in Braille, possibly even deciding to learn the Braille system. If a deaf student was a member of a class, I suspect that MANY of the classmates would want to learn both Sign Language and Lip Reading.
Such students would therefore NOT be treated as unwanted, but instead would certainly quickly realize that they were PART of the class! The self-image of those students would be wonderfully improved!
The enthusiasm for learning which would certainly be central to all classes in the CALM School would certainly include these students as well.
Did I describe millions of dollars of extra expense for a School District? Not remotely! Yes, there would likely be TINY extra expenses, such as a few Braille textbooks, but virtually NO EXTRA EXPENSE.
Now say that one of the students in a CALM class tried to make fun of one of the Disabled classmates. Virtually instantly, there would be a dozen students who would express criticism of such a poor joke, and they would all present solidarity with the Disabled classmate. It is hard to imagine ANY activity or situation where a Disabled classmate might be left out! In fact, IF a child in a wheelchair needed to have the chair pushed, the Teacher might need to divide the right to push that chair among the students who wanted to do that. In other words, in essentially every sense, all is GOOD!
The CALM, hi-mot school figures to be close to the ideal learning environment. Motivated students (of all social and racial and ability groups), a physically safe environment (as a physically SEPARATE school), and motivated Teachers who could actually expand the students intellectual envelopes, and involved parents, would combine for wonderful results. It seems likely that most of the students would graduate from this School and that most of them would go on to continue their education in College. Even the initially disadvantaged and initially slow students!
The MEDIAN, mid-mot school figures to be similar to the Schools of a few decades ago, with some important differences. Again, a physically SEPARATE location should ensure a much safer environment than is common in large cities, since most of the trouble-makers would not be present. Such people would not be disruptive in the Classroom so as to allow more productive teaching time as well. They would also not be present in the hallways so less gang pressure and racial or religious discrimination might develop there. In addition, the Teacher would know that these students have some, but limited, motivation which would allow adjustments in the teaching method to most benefit them. Considerably more educational growth would certainly occur in virtually all the students in this school than is generally the case in the current system.
The RUDE, low-mot school would almost certainly require more aggressive efforts at discipline and maintaining order. If these commonly disruptive, irreverent, disrespectful students are to learn anything toward being productive participants of society, they must learn appropriate behavior and respect first. This school would have low tolerance on anti-social behavior. It might even have some aspects of the "boot camps" and Military schools that have arisen to deal with troublesome children. If and when some of these students learn such appropriate behavior and respect, (and most would probably see selfish value in doing so), they could likely quickly qualify for the MEDIAN, mid-mot or CALM, hi-mot school for the next year. Until they learn how to properly co-exist with society, they would primarily have to deal with each other and with a strict school structure designed to handle their behavior patterns.
There would probably be other incentives for students to strive to learn socially acceptable patterns to qualify for the MEDIAN, mid-mot or CALM, hi-mot schools. One would suspect that most girls would generally qualify for one of those schools, which would leave the RUDE, low-mot School primarily for unruly boys. Since these boys would have few girls to "show off" for, they may choose to learn better behavior just to be in a School which has more girls. This motivation may not be very traditional, but if ANY method assists trouble-making boys learn better social behavior patterns and self-restraint, society will ultimately benefit.
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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago
Ex-Teacher, Thornridge High School, Dolton, Illinois