The President has rightfully declared that “our first job as a nation is to care for our children . . . and to give all of them a chance at a good life with happiness and purpose.” As an educator for 36 years, I want to suggest a few ways the nation can help us reach this goal.
The first thing we must do is to make sure every child in need has access to high quality pre-kindergarten education. Study after study shows the long term benefits of early intervention, especially with our at-risk children. The first seven years of a child’s life are the most formative to their character and future success. The President asked if we are meeting our obligations to all of our children. The current answer is NO, but we could fix this.
We need to increase social work, behavioral and mental health counseling services at our schools to help teachers, parents and students. Counselors are so overloaded at schools (usually 1 counselor for 400 students) that they scarcely have time to provide much more than academic advisement and testing coordination. Parents of “high-needs children” want a safe place to get help, and schools are the most logical place for this. After graduation, there needs to be a continuum of services to help them transition into becoming productive citizens.
We need to trust educators to do what is best for their students. We must end the current obsession of evaluating schools and teachers with standardized test scores, as if that is all that matters. We want teachers who are skilled, compassionate and willing to hide their children in a closet if that’s what it takes to keep them safe. As a former public school principal, I can tell you that there are hundreds of reasons why standardized test scores often have little to do with the talents of the teacher or quality of the school. Schools and teachers who take on the most challenging students are frequently the ones who look like they accomplished the least; when exactly the opposite is true. Standardized tests can be a good benchmark for progress, but there will never be a valid test that measures the most important things teachers and counselors do for our children.
Let’s begin treating principals like CEO’s and allow them to lead their schools using their professional training to evaluate teachers in meaningful ways. Hold them accountable for results and let them do what’s best for their students. We don’t need to waste more time and money on developing standardized tests for every subject, especially elective classes. There is no benefit to sucking all the joy out of teaching and learning. Hands-on, engaging learning can do more for a child’s motivation, self esteem and “belongingness” than anything else.
Teaching our students the social and emotional skills of compassion, empathy and coping with life’s frustrations are just as important as honing their academic skills. I have seen many students who seemed hopelessly lost and alienated turned around through a school’s conscious efforts of inclusion and understanding. We need to shift our policies and priorities toward valuing the talents and gifts of all children, giving them all that chance at happiness and purpose. As the President said, “If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.”
President, Reform Works, Inc. and retired principal of SAIL High School in Tallahassee, Fl.