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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Can Teachers Fix Our Schools?

I don't have a hook or a pithy anecdote to begin this post. I do, however, have the most important question I can think of in all its simplicity: How do we fix our schools?

Now, unless you're teaching with your head in the ground, you'd have heard by now that our educational system is fractured and under fire. I'm not willing to say it's totally broken, however, because it's still held together by the filaments of our country's unique dream -- that of providing a free and equitable education for every student.

We here at Edutopia.org know that there are challenges to achieve this goal. But along with our mission to provide a forum to share what works in public education, we also work to provide a venue for problem solving. We believe in teachers, and their ability to collaborate and solve any problem put before them. We also know that the only way schools can be "fixed" is to have teacher voices at the table.

Your Mission

And just as many times science has its infancy in science fiction, perhaps the answer to the question of just how do we fix schools lies in educational-fiction first. Think about that for a moment.

I can see you already shaking your head as you hit budget barrier after budget barrier in your thoughts. But the most effective solutions begin with the fantasy; so don't get bogged down with the nays yet.

Still not willing to jump in? Still getting shut down with thoughts of how to fund adult education courses for parents, providing nutritious meals for every child, Internet access for each district home, and daily collaboration time for each teacher?

OK, you're right. Maybe it's too much to start thinking about that which we can't control. And as important as we are, teachers cannot single-handedly fix all of the problems we currently face. But we can fix some. And some is better than this stalemate of broken that we now find ourselves in. So let's just start with fantasizing about that which we as teachers can fix. Just think about that which we can do something about.

Here are just some of the ways I believe that we teachers can spearhead some important changes in our schools:

Taking Action

Use project learning to solve community needs.

Set the students to the tasks ahead of them in the future. What are the local community needs? The global community needs? How do we solve them? Create project learning opportunities at the district, local, state, national level that pose real problems and set the students to implementing solutions of their own creation. Better yet, have them research and discover what those issues are first. Use writing and math and history and science to create the reports that will be used to persuade the policy makers at every level.

Allow the skills that your students need in their future to help drive the curriculum.

The year is 2020. What skills do college graduates need to know? Create a list with your department or school of those predicted skills and have that help in developing your thematic units and lessons. More importantly than the standards, make sure your lessons apply to skills that your students will need to have in their futures. (Read up on 21st-century skills.)

Adjust our rubrics to reflect the ability to communicate content, not just knowledge of content.

"Able to teach" should be the highest possible achievement on a classroom's rubric. After all, it says that to communicate an idea is as important as understanding the concept in isolation. Communication is a skill that should be on everyone's list of future skills. Students will need to not only understand content, but also to communicate that content to others. Our rubrics need to reflect students' abilities to communicate verbally and in written formats -- both online and offline.

Use brain development data.

As Judy Willis suggests standards should be based on the developmental brain research of what the age of the brain is capable of doing, not based on what we assume the brain is ready to learn. There are still traits of those old chapbooks in education. That is, prior to the illustrated primer, kids were taught like little adults.

We have come a long way since then. We're still not always teaching what students can do (more of what adults feel they should do). Maybe it's time to flip that philosophy? What triggers learning? Study the brain and what happens when it learns. Study MRIs when a second grade brain is stimulated, a fifth grade brain is stimulated, and a ninth grade brain is stimulated. Use that data to help guide our practice. If the brain is stimulated using certain methods, we should embed those strategies into our lesson delivery.

Pitch a new elective class, or start a new club.

Find your own joy in teaching again. It would make you happy to teach what you love, and that happiness trickles down to your students. Besides, our schools should sing with the sounds of extracurriculars. Remember when the standards weren't the goal, but the given, and we were rich with electives? Budgets may be to blame for their demise, sure, but enthusiasm for teaching electives has also been beaten out of many of us.

Rise again with the enthusiasm to teach that which you have loved your whole life -- photography, soccer, art appreciation, or engineering. I want remote controlled robots darting through the halls like a scene from Star Wars. I want to hear a kid tuning up his guitar in the quad, and I want kids coming to class sweaty from activity (and I'll want deodorant awaiting them when they do.)

What Next?

Granted, these changes are only a fraction of the equation that can truly turn our schools around. The families, the government and funding, and the students themselves all have to make changes if our schools are going to truly succeed.

But if we as teachers work to fix what we can, and if the other variables begin to stand up and take notice of our efforts and begin their own change, then maybe the filaments of our country's unique dream will begin to slowly strengthen and re-knit, forming the muscles that can perhaps engage effective healing.

So, I've given you five low-cost ways that teachers can begin the grassroots reform that we need in our schools. What does your list for teachers look like?

Comments (47)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

msteach's picture

I am in such agreement with the action steps that teacher's can take to better their schools. As a matter of fact, I recently came up with the idea to allow my students to do powerpoints based on the year's thematic units. The excitement in the students, gave me a small tingle in my spine. Something as simple as introducing adding effects to the slide show had them in awe. So many times I have seen so many teachers become part of the problem rather than attributing effective suggestions for the solution. I also agree that collaboration is a critical aspect of getting teachers, students, and the community to "buy in" to this business of educating tomorrow's leaders. We must take a stand for our children and devote our time to the things we can change and make sure our focus is the students.

J. Alsheimer's picture

The first thing that needs to be done in order to fix our schools, is to actually change the morale of the school itself. To change the culture of the school so that both teachers and students take a valued ownership with in that school and they want to be there. If that first can be acheieved than all the other problems will be fixed much easier. Teachers need to feel supported and students need to feel appreciated and cared for. When this happens, it will open the doors of change.

1st grade teacher's picture

Ok so I teach 1st grade now and I think your ideas for fixing our schools are awesome. I love the idea of project learning. Now the schools are pushing to become a Green School so what better way to imcorporate a project based learning opportunity than recycling or reusing. My school is actually on this push right now and I am thinking about having my students research the most practical way to set up a garden. We with the help of our green volunteer would maybe dedicate a garden to the students we lost this year in Haiti. They could research and come up with a plan in groups and then present their plans to the class and have a vote. Thanks for the idea. I also like the idea about teaching for the future in essence. I try to not only teach the curriculum but to teach my students all I can about the skills they will need when they go into the workforce. I think I will try to take it one step further and teach them about skills they will need in the year 2020. As far as the communication skill in students you talk about. It's funny because as I read this I thought about what I did last year with my students. We were studying American symbols and the students were so bored with writing that I thought it would be fun to put together as a class a powerpoint presentation to show to another class about America's symbols. So we put together teams with a different symbol and they researched it on their own and at school for about 3 weeks and gathered the information. Then at their computer time I typed the information and they told me how to put together the information. I was so surprised at the end of the project how it came out and it gave me some good grades in different subjects. I really enjoyed reading about how you think we can change our schools and got some great ideas. So, thank you.

Marcus Johnson's picture

I totally agree that we should focus more energy on the things which we can change rather than dwell on those we cannot. Tying community issues into the lesson is a great way of getting students and the community in general involved.

Clay Stephenson's picture

Taking action is the key component in fixing our schools. There are far too many teachers who do nothing but complain about the problems and challenges they face. The great teachers, although they might complain, take the neccessary steps to improve this problem. They are proactive in the whole process. This is what separates the great teachers and the great schools from average ones. Great schools have leaders behind the scenes taking the initiative to do all the little things that help solve problems and overcome the challenges that they face.

Adam Dennis's picture

I enjoyed your blog. It was inspiring to think of teaching not as a bunch of standards but a way to improve our future planet, which is what we are here to do. I have recently spent time reflecting on how to enhance my students 21st Century skills so that they may be productive in their future lives. I have visited schools that are completely project based and have been amazed at how well students can represent and articulate themselves. They were models for what I want my students to be. Thank you for the insight.

Kimberly Steinbach's picture

I enjoyed reading your article. After reading your thoughts on taking action in our classrooms I was inspired. I would like to implement ways to teach my students to participate in community based project learning. Students should learn ways to participate outside of the school and help out in their community too. I went into teaching because I love to teach. After reading about bringing back what you love into teaching I reflected on ways I could incorporate my love for teaching in the classroom. I am going to teach each lesson with the passion for learning that I would like my students to gain by having me as their teacher. Thank you for voicing your opinions and reaching out to other teachers so that we can unite and make a difference in our schools.

Melissa Bair's picture

Teachers can continue making excuses for what they cannot do or start taking control of what they can do. Teachers can make a difference and here is how they can start.

My list for what teachers can fix in our schools starts and ends with professional learning communities. A professional learning community focuses more on learning, working with a group collaboratively, and being honest by not making excuses (DuFour, 2004). West explained in the video "Introduction to Professional Learning Communities" that these communities should be exciting and stimulating, having teachers leave with the feeling of wanting more time to collaborate with their team.

My school required our second grade team to have a meeting once a week to discuss our lessons for the following week. Our second grade team only had a thirty minute window before we had students arriving back in our classrooms. There was no time set aside to talk about new ideas to implement into the lessons or what improvements could be made to better the students learning. Leiberman discussed in the video "Characteristics of Effective Professional Development" that teachers need to meet during a good time during the day, when no students are around, to effectively interact.

Each teacher should be excited to share their experiences with their team. Being honest helps teachers learn about their strengths and weaknesses. Working collaboratively allows teachers to share techniques that worked well and teach those techniques to their team furthering student success throughout the grade level.

Working together as a professional learning community in a grade level or subject area helps teachers gain knowledge about what they teach making them feel more comfortable. In fact, the teacher will be more flexible and more attentive to their students during the lesson, thus improving their students learning (Garmston, 1998).

Other teachers will notice when teachers start showing the positive improvements from their own professional learning community. This positive learning and group interaction will spread throughout the school and most importantly pass down to the students learning which is the most important.


DuFour, R. (2004). Schools as learning communities. Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6-11. Retrieved from http://pdonline.ascd.org/pd_online/secondary_reading/el200405_dufour.html

Garmston, R.J. (1998, Winter). Becoming expert teachers (part one). Journal of Staff Development, 19(1). Retrieved from http//sylvan.live.ecollege.com/ec/courses/46348/CRS-WUPSYC6205-3991104/6610_readings/expert_teachers.pdf

Ashley King's picture

I am so glad that you posed this question! I often wondered what more I could do as a professional! It is true that we have only so much control over our surroundings. However, we can help our students by doing what is in our power, such as teaching and developing standards based on the development on our students' brains instead of teaching what we think they should be able to understand.

Kitty Fogliano's picture

I have taught internationally for the past 6 years and before that taught for 6 years in a private school in the US. However, my question is, are US schools really broken? I am interested in hearing what teachers think about this...I sense that the problems of the "US" are really local and divergent based on SES and that accusing schools and teachers of being broken is a political tactic. I've worked with amazing teachers in inner-city Chicago as well as in the suburbs. I don't know how these great teachers could be expected to combat poverty and neglect...is it really a problem with schools and teachers or rather with our economic paradigm? I'd love to hear what American teachers really observe.

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