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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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A Four-Point Plan for Transforming U.S. Education

Let me start by saying I certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to education. I, do, think, however, after spending many years working as an educator, writing, and researching about the topic, I have some ideas. We don’t have to search far to know that the United States education system has its challenges.

Globally, we continue to slip behind other countries. We are no longer the model, as countries like Finland and South Korea have gained the spotlight. At the risk of sounding like a politician, I’d like to present a plan that could, at least improve, our current conditions.

1.Elevate the Teaching Profession

We need to change how teaching in the United State is viewed. Elevating the position and status of being a k-12 teacher may not necessarily be just about raising salaries (though, I don’t think this would hurt). Rather, it’s about raising standards. For instance, in Finland, general education teachers must complete at least a master’s degree before entering the teaching field. Raising the bar will position the education system to accept only the top performers. But it’s more than that.

We must work to change society’s image of the teacher, by reconsidering how teaching is presented in Hollywood, by the media, even by parents to their children.

2. Create Autonomous Professionals

While Finland doesn’t necessarily pay teachers any more than U.S. teachers get paid (when you factor in cost of living, etc.), what the country’s education system does provide is lots of autonomy. Equipped with intensive training, even new teachers are provided the autonomy to make choices about what methods, strategies, and instructional programs to use in the classroom.

They are not micro-managed by school districts and school administration. They are treated as true professionals. There’s a certain allure to entering a profession where you are trusted to make decisions, where you have discretion, and where your professional expertise is valued. This attracts creative, talented people.

3. Stop Weighing the Pig So Much and Feed It

The testing obsession needs to reside. The system does not need to eliminate testing and accountability, just strike more of a balance between testing students (weighing the pig) and actually allowing teachers time to teach. The constant testing-and practicing for testing-not only adds pressure but strips away time for meaningful instruction. It’s like constantly stepping on the scale to check one’s weight rather than spending more time exercising. The focus needs to be on high-quality instruction, with occasional, reasonable assessment of progress.

4. Turning Schools into Talent-Development Centers

The curriculum needs to account more for students’ strengths and talent areas and bring more real-world, 21st century application into classrooms. Students need time to explore their individual interests and passions and have time to develop these skills. If we buy into ideas like the 10,000-hour rule to become an expert (or at least the idea that to develop talent it takes much, concentrated time), then we must provide ample opportunities for students at all grade levels to discover these talent areas and develop them through lessons, projects, and other school-based activities.  Perhaps as testing time and preparation is scaled back, we would have more time for this extremely valuable pursuit. We should also reconsider the factory-model, paper-and-pencil approach still used in many schools and work toward implementing innovative practices that resonate with digital learners.

5. Make Schools a Place Kids Want to Go

Finally, I think we need to do a better job of making schools the kind of place students look forward to going and spending time. Ask a random student what they think of school-even ones that are getting good grades, etc.—and the likely answer is that it’s dreadful or they don’t want to go. This is a shame. Schools should be places of exciting learning, new opportunities, collaboration, engaging projects and enriching field trips. While schools don’t all need to have a twisting- two-story slide in the middle of the school, like the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta (though, this would be exciting), we need to do a better job of incorporating students’ interests into learning, of infusing project-based, hands-on curriculum, and bringing the world to students.

I realize these are tall orders. The ideas presented would take much work and a considerable amount of time. Some reading this may even consider them unreasonable and unachievable. But if we used them as a guide, I think we could transform or at least make improvement to schools across the country. I think it’s worth trying.