Educational reform is not a new idea.
From the earliest invention of schools, there have been folks like John Dewey, Horace Mann, and others who believed we can do better and sought to do so. However, there has never been a point in history with so much momentum for a complete overhaul. We are at a tipping point to make some bigger changes to the way we operate as a public school system.
Factors of Our School System
How many students…
… truly enjoy their school experience?
… believe it is a place for them to thrive?
… feel that school is a safe place – physically, intellectually, and emotionally?
… are confident that school is preparing them for success after graduation?
Many high school students believe that school is something to survive, rather than a place to thrive. For some, graduation feels like the completion of a prison sentence. Or, it is simply the opportunity to move on with their life. I recently saw a heartbreaking tweet from a parent who sent a picture of their family calendar. On the date for the first day of school, their 11 year-old son had written “return to hell.”
Conversely, I had a recent conversation in my house with my two children who attend our school. Both of them commented on how excited they were for school. They couldn’t wait for it to start. I told them they were weird kids who needed more dread and despair in their lives. Okay, that is not true, but I did ask them why they were so excited to return to school. My kids said that they missed their teachers, who were their friends. Plus, they were very excited about their new classes and the things they were going to learn.
It actually makes me sad that this is the exception, not the norm. I could tell you many more stories about creating an environment for students to thrive, but I will just tell you my favorite one. Never will I forget our first day back for second semester in the second year of our experiment of reinventing our school system.
Our school was in modulars at the bottom of a hill and I was headed to a district meeting, walking up the hill to my car. As I was walking, I was greeted by one of our students running down the hill. When I said good morning in passing, the student explained why they were running. They were so excited to be back at school that they needed to get there as soon as possible! Now, to be clear, we don’t have every student running to school every day with excitement, but shouldn’t that be our goal to create that type of an environment?
When you think about your favorite subject in school, how much of that had to do with the teacher of the course?
When you think of the class that you enjoyed the least, how much of that was due to the relationship you had (or didn’t have) with the teacher?
There is an inescapable link between subject and teacher in this school system. In many ways, we are playing an educational lottery. A student’s experience with a subject is completely up to which teacher ends up on their master schedule.
We may be missing out on future engineers and problem solvers, incredible scientists who can cure disease, or poets and writers who can change history based on the schedule algorithm used to assign students/teachers to courses. Don’t even get me started on the insider trading that educators use to avoid other teachers that they know are not going to be good for their own children.
The feelings students have about school and their teachers could probably be overlooked if our school system was preparing them for success beyond high school. Frankly, the lack of success for students at the college level could stand alone as the reason for change. Our current high school model does not prepare most students for success in higher education.
Most high schools will trumpet their college entrance data, which is important as a measure of their success in providing opportunities for students. Shouldn’t the real measure of a school’s success be how many of their students complete college? Using the national averages, for every 10 students that go to college, only 4 of the 10 will have a degree in 4 years and only 6 of them will have them in 6 years. The other 4 that start college will not have a degree. Yet, they will likely carry student loan debt for a degree they did not complete. Many of these young people will be starting life with one hand tied behind their back professionally.
While the student experience is less than we would hope for, the real crisis is in the teacher experience. I don’t use the word crisis lightly, because that is the direction the profession is heading. There are many educators looking to leave the profession. In one recent poll, as many as 40% of educators have said that they have considered leaving the profession in the last year.
Though this was one of the most challenging years due to COVID, this follows a trend line that began pre-COVID 19. While some of those folks may be close to retirement, many are not. One study revealed that as many as 50% of teachers leave the profession in their first five years.
Supply vs. Demand
Colleges and schools of education are not able to keep up with the demand for new teachers. It is now common for schools to have single digit applicants for open positions, if they even have any applicants at all. Recently, I spoke with a middle school administrator that is looking for a science teacher. They have not had a single applicant for the position with less than 2 weeks until the start of school.
So why do we not have enough teachers? Part of the issue is pay. Wage comparison to other professions is certainly part of the conversation. Another part of the issue is the role teachers play in the learning experience. Teachers spend most of their time delivering content. Often times, they deliver the exact same content multiple times each day. That is not very engaging.
Most teachers get into the profession to build relationships with young people and to try to make a positive difference in their lives. With the focus on content, the relationships are an afterthought. We need to reshape the school experience to give teachers more time and opportunity to focus on relationship building and less time as purveyors of content.
We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. The crisis started before COVID-19 but has become even more pronounced over the last year. This crisis impacts our students and our staff. Teen suicide numbers are at the highest level in recorded history. Acute teen mental health centers are overrun with patients. The industry can’t build new facilities fast enough.
An often-unspoken mental health crisis is among our staff. Our teachers are hurting. The job is more difficult and complex than it has ever been. I recently heard about a school district that was shopping for a new insurance carrier. They were turned down by several large companies because of the number of staff that are on anti-depressants and other psychological medications.
We must act – fast.
All of these factors considered together show that we need a new school system. Let’s get back to a place where learning and schooling are fun.
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