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Tue, May. 4th, 2010, 11:54 am
Six Steps to Improve Urban Education in America

I've been talking a lot about what doesn't fix the achievement gap in public schools. Programs designed to fire teachers who have low-scoring students is an example of a fatally wrong-headed approach to education, because it creates animosity between teachers and low-performing students who drag scores down, and discourages teachers from working in the very schools that are hardest to recruit in.

So instead of being all negative and listing only bad proposals, here are the positive steps I would suggest that would create the greatest possible difference in the lives of students in schools that struggle most.

1) Recruit more minority teachers.

People who know what it's like to be part of a minority group in America are intrinsically better prepared to connect with and understand students who know what it's like to be a part of a minority group in America. Teachers of color and teachers who grew up in tough urban environments are most likely to apply criticism and praise in the right way to encourage students to take the path that they themselves took, to react positively towards challenging situations in which a student's behavior is part of her or his culture, and to become good role models that the students can identify with. Teachers of color model success for students of color whereas an all-white teaching staff creates the image that white people are successful community builders who people of color are subjugated to. Having teachers from minority communities gives students hope that they, too can be successful, and that the path society generally sets for them - telling them that college and well-paying jobs are out of reach - can be changed if they focus on school.

A school with a student body that is primarily of color should be taught by a faculty that is primarily of color, and teachers of color should have a strong voice in explaining to their white colleagues how charged racial or cultural situations should be dealt with.

2) Reduce class size.

No teacher, no matter how skilled or brilliant, is going to be at her or his best in a class of 40 students. Dicipline issues will take up more class time than learning, and students who are diciplined in this way will become uninvested from school. Lecturing to a class of kids who are at different levels of ability is hard, and content always suffers; the best way to compensate is when teachers are able to answer individual questions and spend 1-on-1 time with students during work time. But 1-on-1 time is more or less impossible when class sizes are huge; there shouldn't be more than 25 students in a classroom at at time under most circumstances, and the ideal is probably closer to 17 students. What this ultimately comes down to is funding, because increasing class size is unavoidable when schools have to cut positions.

4) Make education a community effort.

Schools should not be seen as places where kids disappear in for 8 hours a day after they wake up, and educators should not see the community as a place that students disappear to for 16 hours after the bell rings. Schools and communities need to be intrinsically connected to improve student achievement.

Again, this reflects on the need to recruit more minority teachers. An all-white teaching staff is often uncomfortable around or even adversarial to parents of color, who the teachers may blame for their students' poverty or juge critically when they do not understand the community's culture. Students are savier than they may seem, and pick up on animosity teachers have for the community, which further informs them that they don't have much of a future as members of their race.

There should be thorough coordination between a school and the community, and local businesses, colleges, city councils and politicians need to play a direct role in educationg students. Legislators and community leaders should regularly put politics aside and take time to have non-political talks with students. Local scientists should visit classrooms. Businesses should encourage students to work with them in paid internships. Colleges should send tutors to work with younger students and writers and artists should be involved. The community should provide the manpower and interest, but the facilitators of this kind of activity will have to come from inside the school.

5) Increase the number of nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers in schools.

A lot of students in tough school districts spend more of their thoughts unpacking traumatic or challenging life situations than they do learning. How is a student who is homeless or living out of a car supposed to get homework done, or even care about homework? How is a student who has been subjugated to racism or homophobia in school supposed to feel good about going there again and again each day? How is a student with diabetes, epilepsy or any other potentially serious condition without regular access to health care that parents can afford supposed to get through the day where physical symptoms are interfering with work? How is a student with ADHD or depression supposed to deal when she or he is not getting professional help?

Students in challenging situations need to be allowed more time with school psychologists and counselors, and schools should provide these services to carefully monitor student achievement, and to be willing to investigate further and solve problems when disconnects show up. Someone in the school needs to know how to get a kid on Medicaid. Someone in the school needs to be able to talk to the parents about supplying medications. Someone in the school needs to be able to create a safe space for students to talk about their lives and ensure students are socially and psychologically healthy, so that class time can be spent on learning rather than other issues.

6) Ban junk foods from cafeterias.

Schools that provide free lunches are often relied on to give their kids nutrition that their parents are unable to afford, or to have time to prepare when they're working multiple jobss. That being the case, it's tragic when schools respond by providing salty fried potatoes with oil-based cheese sauce every day for lunch because it is the cheapest food they can get that the kids will eat.

It is known that the healthiness in childhood sets the tone for healthiness in adulthood, and sugar and junk food can have measurable negative effects on behavior and concentration. Of course, kids are going to order what tastes good, and it is often junk food that tastes the best, and it takes a while for kids (and adults) to adjust their tastes to prefer healthy foods - so junk food shouldn't even be an option. Schools should outright ban sugars and chips, and should instead provide only whole wheat bread for sandwiches, non-sugar cereals, sauces that are not loaded with oil or white flour, fresh fruits and vegetables, cooked fruits and vegetables, and other whole meals.

This, again, comes down to funding, since it is slightly more expensive to provide this kind of food. But good health is the foundation for good behavior and productivity.