How We Can Improve Schools (Without Spending More Money)

Businesses depend on a competent labor force to thrive and grow.  If it were up to me, I’d get rid of compulsory education because sending kids to bad schools is like sending them to bad hospitals — we’re killing their natural love of learning, their childlike sense of wonder.  Doing so would improve working conditions for teachers (won’t have to deal with those who don’t want to and shouldn’t be there), freeing resources to increase salaries of most effective teachers and an excuse to fire the incompetent. Since ending compulsory education is too radical an idea for most, let’s discuss reform instead.  More money isn’t the solution.  It’s like giving a .200 hitter more money in hopes that he’ll start hitting .300.  People don’t work that way.  Money does not improve performance.  It only improves recruitment and retention of better performers.

1. Get rid of foreign language requirement.  Not get rid of foreign language classes.  Most students will take first year foreign language and drop out after two or three quarters.  The ones who really want to learn a foreign language will still be able to do so (and in any case, they’d learn it with or without school).  Most are sitting through French 3 or Spanish 3 or whatever without learning anything.  It’s a waste of time and resources.  Come on, how many people in Spanish 3 actually speak even broken Spanish? If we’re serious about foreign language acquisition — very important part of education as it positively alters brain structure — start in 1st grade.  Total immersion, two hours a day.  Resources wasted on foreign language classes in high school can be used to develop grade school language classes.

2. Rote memorization is not the same as rote learning.  Incorporate rote memorization to prevent students from ultimately relying on rote learning.  Rote memorization does not stifle creativity, it is the first step to mastery.  Rote learning makes creativity impossible, and that’s how most students I’ve met learn — they’re obsessed with getting the right answer instead of asking good questions.  Rote learning happens when students don’t understand the point of what they’re learning. And the reason why they don’t get the point is because they lack fundamental skills that are best developed through rote memorization.  Students who don’t know the multiplication tables by heart will do poorly on standardized tests of math skills because it takes them too long to finish problems and on higher level math problems.  The low test scores confirms to students that they’re not good at math, when that isn’t true, they just don’t have fundamentals down because some moron with a PhD in a bullshit field like Education believes rote memorization of table would stifle creativity and prevent students from understanding multiplication.  No wonder so many American students — including the 4.0 students — are psychologically broken when it comes to Math (and most other subjects).  Think of it this way.  If you want to be a great baseball hitter, what do you do?  You drill, drill, drill, 1000 hits per day.  Want to be a great tennis player?  Same thing.  Drill against a wall.  Not exciting or glamorous, tedious to most people in fact, but they can’t be creative on the court until their body has the fundamentals memorized.  Excellence in any profession requires thousands of hours of drilling drilling drilling.  Get students used to drilling — memorizing formulas, historical facts, spelling, vocabulary.  Have them memorize poems, passages, Emimen lyrics, whatever, just get that memory muscle trained early and often. Still worried about their creativity?  Well, recent PISA scores show that 30 percent of Shanghai students are able to apply mathematical concepts in novel situations, while only 2 percent of American counterparts can do the same.  In other words, Shanghai students are MORE creative than their American counterparts.  Much more so.  Once China gets its infrastructure together and has entire nation fluent in English, innovators will mostly be Chinese (or non-Chinese working in China, similar to how US depends on non-Americans for many of its innovations).

3. Give reading that’s relevant.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in the value of the Classics — provides insight into human nature and condition — but most students, including those taking AP classes, are NOT going to read Shakespeare, Homer, Faulkner, Sun-Tzu, Thucydides, whatever.  They pretend to do their reading.  They’re just faking it.  Giving them reading they won’t read is a waste of time and resources.  You can’t force people to do what they don’t want to do.  So give them reading that will interest them.  I’m not saying we should dumb everything down to Harry Potter.  Teachers should give students list a books to choose from.  Empower the students, let them make a choice.   One of my former employees, who graduated with a 3.7 GPA, confessed to me that stopped reading after 9th grade.  She started reading again, and often, when she encountered Anthony Bourdain.  An author like Bourdain works, especially with working class kids.  Not just because of his foul mouthed badass style and sordid tales of sex and debauchery that kids find entertaining, but because because he teaches reality (schools teach fantasy), how to deal with life that is cruel, painful, and lonely. He teaches importance of work ethic, of being reliable, what it takes to reach the pinnacle of any profession.  I guarantee you entire school will be reading daily if we assign them material they can easily relate to.  Just get them reading.  Then we can let them decide if they want to study Milton.

4. Teach students how to read.  Get them in habit of reading a passage and then writing three questions instead of answering three comprehension questions.  They need to be engaged with the reading, challenging it to understand it.  This will break rote learning habit.  And the habit of wanting to give right answer instead of asking questions. Learning only happens when one asks questions.

5. Pair math and science classes with trade classes for all students.  Like Geometry and auto mechanics.  Physics and construction.  Farming and calculus.  Cooking and chemistry.  Whatever students need while they’re at school.  Students need to see relevance of their classes.  Otherwise, they snooze.  This also gets them work experience.  Have them build and repair things for the school.  Making useful products helps them build pride and dignity.

6. Make competitive athletics required.  PE isn’t enough, cancel it.  Not intense enough, school pride isn’t at stake. They need to learn to sacrifice their bodies to the school.  Only then will they feel responsible for it and their schoolmates.  If we don’t put them through pain, they will not love school.  Competitive athletics also makes the body and its movements more graceful. Those who don’t want to be on the field can work as team managers.  As long as they’re part of a team.

7. Give them control of school maintenance.  Some pay 50k a year so their kids attend a school that has them working in the kitchen and cleaning up school grounds.  So why can’t public schools do the same?  Are our kids too good for floor mopping?  Imagine the money saved. And the habits instilled.  Guarantee there will be fewer incidences of vandalism because have too much invested in maintenance of school grounds.  The entire school culture will change if students are in charge of basic operations.

8. Give them freedom to express themselves artistically.  Educator John Taylor Gatto and Pink Floyd have described schools as prisons. Perhaps give each class a graffiti wall.  They can paint over it at end of each year for following class.  It’s like a cost-effective art class that will make schools feel less sterile.  Cancel art classes except for AP Art.  Better to have students build a shed than to make jewelry.  Artistic expression isn’t limited to art classes.  Art is everywhere.

9. School uniforms.  This is especially important in communities like SnoKing, where student body is drawn from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.  Make it more difficult for students to form cliques, help them see past socio-economic difference so they don’t get distracted by envy and peer pressure.  Uniforms will give them a sense of belonging (even if they don’t like what they belong to).   Those afraid they’ll lose their individuality need to get a grip.  Americans are obsessed with individuality even though very few understand what it means in context of American political culture.  Most students think of individuality as personal rights (entitlement) and freedom of expression, not as individual responsibility to others and society and humanity.  Most students conform to peer pressure within their social group.  People don’t become individuals just because they get to choose their own clothes.  Becoming an individual is a Sisyphean process of self-reflection and self-improvement.  Letting students believe they’re already individuals only inflates their self-esteem, making it impossible for them to grow.

10. Get students used to performing in public.  Have them work through problems in front of classmates.  Have classmates help them when they struggle.  Have them recite and perform passages and poems in front of class, with best performing in front of school.  Get them used to embarrassment, humiliation, fucking up.  They need to learn to deal with failure, because most of life is failure.

11. Increase class sizes, hire fewer teachers.  A great teacher is much more productive than a mediocre teacher.  Bad teachers are like bad doctors, they produce negative value, fuck everything up.  Better to have a great teacher teach a class of 50 than two mediocre teachers teach class of 25 each.  Famed math teacher Jaime Escalante produced impressive results despite classes with 50 students (against union rules) in a low income neighborhood.  Reducing class sizes doesn’t improve results by much.  Quality of teaching and leadership matters more.  Most classes at a top high school like Stuyvesant are over 30 (and would be more if not for union restrictions).  Class sizes in South Korea are typically 35-40.

Schools are supposed to provide fundamentals so graduates are ready for work-force.  Most, including colleges, fail to do so.  Considerable time and money is spent to get students to unlearn habits and attitudes picked up in school.



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