George Lucas Educational Foundation

Up Front: What Works in Public Education

Together, we can save our schools.
By James Daly
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How do we sleep while our beds are burning?

That is part of the chorus from a song released twenty years ago by the amazing Australian band Midnight Oil. Today, it could serve as the clarion call for public education.

Our educational system faces some of the toughest challenges it has met since America's first public school opened in Boston in 1635. Nearly 40 percent of students entering high school fail to graduate on time. More than 7,000 kids drop out of high school every day. Almost half of all beginning teachers leave the profession within five years. If that isn't exhausting enough, the No Child Left Behind Act has many educators feeling trapped in a test-driven system that stifles the individuality integral to great teaching.

Here's more: In our great but bedraggled state of California, where our editorial offices are based, we have an action-hero governor who has proposed cutting $4.5 billion from the state education budget (and this after declaring 2008 "The Year of Education.") The governor has also proposed cutting funding for programs like special education, child nutrition, and before-school and after-school programs. I live in the town of Alameda. In order to submit a balanced budget -- as required by state law -- the Alameda Unified School District has proposed cutting $4.5 million over the next two years. This will be done by eliminating high school sports, Advanced Placement programs, middle school guidance counselors, the jobs of several dozen teachers, and music for grades 1-3 -- as well as closing elementary, middle, and high schools. Multiply that by hundreds of communities across the state.

California is the state where 13 percent of the country's kids go to school. It's the largest public education system in the United States, and it's about to get pushed off a cliff. What does this fate foretell for the rest of the country? I believe that if we don't get our public education system in order, this country will disappear as an economic powerhouse within a decade. You're already starting to see that on multiple fronts. We're in a vortex, and it's spiraling down.

But there's hope. Each day, hundreds of thousands of educators fight the good fight, battling intractable bureaucracies with intellectual and technical innovation designed to create great schools and inspired students. These educators have awakened to two simple facts: The feds can't save them, and the state -- as has been proven time and again -- will abandon them. Only through a grassroots holistic effort of local improvement can America's educational system be repaired.

That's where we, at Edutopia, come in. Our main goal is to help the desperately needed campaign of local school improvement flourish. That ideal is best summated in our new tagline: What Works in Public Education. Good educators are passionate about what they do. They are drawn to teaching not for the need to make money but with the indescribable desire to take the nurturing gene we have in our head and apply it to the common good. They're there to educate minds and perhaps inspire lives.

We, too, want to be part of the solution rather than sink into the quicksand of the problem. That's why we have an increased emphasis on workable solutions for average educators and administrators in typical budget-crunched classrooms and school districts. We want to remind educators why they got into the profession, and we hope this increased focus on what works is both inspiring and useful.

Our schools are going to change more in the next ten years than they have in the last hundred. Everyone reading these words will be part of that change. Get ready.

James Daly
Editorial Director

* * *

With the wolf at the door of public education, we're focusing on a new period of growth for Edutopia. Starting this month, we're launching a membership program designed to expand our audience, online and offline, and spread our message. Becoming a member of Edutopia affords some physical benefits -- the magazine, a DVD, and a best-of booklet come with the package -- but, more critically, it's about joining a cause. It's about pushing for innovation, and demanding that our kids deserve creative approaches to their education. Together, we can create that change. You can join here. Please consider becoming a member of Edutopia today.

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mary P. Burch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Huzzah! I'm behind you all the way!

Timothy Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read, with excitement, every issue of Edutopia since the day I discovered one in my mailbox. This month is no different. After reading the article by the Editorial Director, James Daly, I thought about what was written. I reminised about my days in elementary, middle and high school. I thought about how Kindergarten came into existence after I was in 1st or 2nd grade. I thought about what going to school was all about and what we did in school. I have been substitute teaching in the local schools here for over 10 years and also tutor at a local University in Math and Sciences. I do not hold a Bachelors Degree but have over 30 years of educational background. What I determined is wrong with our education system is simply the following; Students no longer have the desire to learn as a whole. The topics are no longer interesting and the exams are not challenging. It's all canned as outlined by state and federal legilation guidelines. Teachers are only trying to follow the guidelines they are given which does not allow for creativity. Teachers today, unlike the teachers I learned from, are only doing it because it's a job that pays a semi-decent paycheck. As a general rule, teachers no longer teach with spirit and heart. It's not in their blood but in their degree. Kids have turned our schools into uncontrolled micro-societies that don't have any governance. We have drug traffiking, organized crime and honest to goodness gangs walking the hallways of a place that education is supposed to be taking place. Kids are no longer just kids anymore and the environment we put them is too governmentally institutionalized. Public schools are no longer really public, they are governmently run systems. The day of going to school until you can help on the farm is gone. If we want our schools back we need to deregulate our schools, instill creativity and hire teachers who have a teaching spirit and desire to teach no matter what the pay is. We need to get the micro-socities out of the schools, put some teeth in what is and isn't appropriate in a public environment. We no longer teach what is right and wrong. We teach what is politically correct and expedient to the non traditional groups. We have let our educational philosophy get dismantled and take on a form of something that gets molded like clay on a daily basis. If we are going to change our education system we need to do it at all levels and get it operating like it used to before we let governement intervention railroad it.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teachers need to turn the tide. "Don't follow a curriculum, Let the curriculum follow you."--Barry Lane. Yes, the kids of today are different. Pop culture, music, technology, and video games reinvented "the kid." Next? Teachers need to change. Yes, people think that can become a teacher, follow a script, and get paid. But, is teaching following a script? If it is, we might as well let robots do it. We need to weed out those back-up career teachers; get the real ones in there that are passionate about lifting humanity, and pay them for what they are really worth. I mean, moms and dads all over the world entrust the well-being of their babies to teachers everyday. How much is that worth? How much do we care about "our children?" It's time for a change; I'm glad Edutopia is on our side.

sheldon lasda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i am a teacher in a challenging district... 80 percent english language learners.... i have taught for 8 years now, having entered teaching as a postscript to a multifaceted career which included stints as a research scientist, a marketing manager, a director at a newspaper and a corporate trainer

in my opinion, the number one problem in education today is....teachers

as pogo said, we have met the enemy and the enemy is us

i am a product of free range teaching.. where for 3 decades teachers closed the door of their classrooms and did what they were moved do do....and it worked...for half of the kids.. for the middle class white kids of average or above average intelligence

i was one of those successes

however the success of the bright white kids was at the expense of the other half of the students... the economically disadvantaged.. the language learners.. the minorities and the students with special needs

free range education had a huge toll on those students who did not appeal to the sensibilities of the self propelled and self guided teachers touting the benefits of free range education

no child left behind .... success for all ... are two concepts that, even with their warts, acknowledge that the mark of a good teacher is one who can educate and motivate ALL of their students.... and that teachers need to be held personally and collectively accountable for their educational casualty rates.... getting 50 children to college the cost of 50 drop outs .. is an unexceptable educational mortality rate

when teachers are held accountable for getting all their students thu the educational maze to the land of self actualization, we will have put in place the mechanism for ensuring that no child is left behind

this will not come about by letting teachers teach what they choose to students they choose to teach to with little or no accountability for the collateral damage that they inflict as they muddle along in the haze of academic freedom

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My Friend,

I absolutely agree with you that no child should not be left behind. "The mark of a good teacher is one who can educate and motivate ALL of their students." Your quote there is spot on. Pay them the big bucks, right? But how do you assess the "good teacher?" According to NCLB, the mark of the good teacher is the ability to get his/her students to pass a test. This is the problem. If you want to inspire all students to work hard and find their passion in life, you can't do it with a test that is crap. Sorry, you can't. I think you are implying that good teachers teach to all of their students, personalizing it to fit individuals. Teach the "whole student?" By holding teachers accountable with one test that only showcases the end product of a year is ludicrous. It shows where the student ends, and not where he began. (And a lot of other things as well. This type of test shows how well a student can conform. It doesn't promote style, creativity, etc..) This is not valid and should not hang around the teacher's neck. Not for one second. This decimates the teacher's confidence. Let's start a new acronym, shall we? NTLB. No Teacher Left Behind. Support the teachers with innovative ways to inspire. Maybe teachers should be evaluated by that? Innovation? Just a thought. I mean, we are posting on Edutopia. Think about it.

Cy Lencio's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The number one problem in education today is TEACHERS?

REALLY?? Teachers... the one line of defense left between getting an education and total ignorance and apathy.

Let's look at a little History lesson first. Back in the "Good Ol' Days" teachers had respect and even reverence because they were providing a service that most adults could not. They were given students that parents had taught the basic rules of Right and Wrong. Kids were raised to respect adults and told to mind their manners, look people in the eye, and work hard. Teachers were given In Loco Parentis (in the place of a parent) which gave them all the rights of a parent. Get out of line and the teacher had the right to discipline. While I understand that this was a reflection of the puritanical views of the colonies at the time, and I don't agree with physical violence such as paddling a student, the thought of discipline in today's schools is a total joke. Students are sent to school with the barest of social skills and very little knowledge of how to behave in any situation and the teachers are expected to get them to learn with no chance of any real consequences. The decay of the American family and the loss of disciplinary control in the schools are much bigger problems in education than teachers.

Next let's do a little English. When people came to this country originally, they were quick to learn the language and become part of the "Melting Pot" of America. Today, we are a great American "Salad Bowl". We don't melt together. You can point out the ethnic areas. (Chinatown, Little Italy, etc.) Keep your culture... by all means, please keep your culture. Learn the language. This isn't an insult. I wish my great grandparents had passed down some of their culture to me. I'd love to speak a language other than English. Tell me... how long would I survive in China if I refused to speak Chinese? Other countries force their kids to learn English because it is an important language. We don't even make our own kids speak English; at least not proper English. Don't tell me teachers are the problem. Support them with ways to help those that are English language learners.

Finally, how about a little Math. Throwing money at a problem won't solve it. Do I think teachers should get paid more??? Definitely. They spend more time with the children of our society than the majority of parents. Are there poor teachers??? Definitely. BUT no one sets out to be a poor teacher. You can't tell me that there are that many people that will spend the time and energy to get a degree to do something that will pay them as little as teaching and give them the amount of aggravation that they get, with the idea in mind that they couldn't care less if they were good at it. I believe the system has created poor teachers. You try and educate students that don't care, in a system that doesn't support you, with no resources or extra training, and no disciplinary response. Unless you are one of the extremely motivated and energetic teachers, eventually you get worn down to just getting by. Zero plus Zero times Zero equals Zero. Half of teachers are out of the profession in 5 years... and it's not just the poor teachers.

No Child Left Behind (as implemented) is actually No Child Gets Ahead. Why are people home schooling their children? Because they can differentiate their education and make sure they are being taught what they believe they need to know and they can challenge their children on an individual basis. You just can't do that in a classroom of 35 students... especially when 6 of them are ADD, 3 are ESL, 10 are 3 grades below reading level, 4 are highly motivated and bored, 1 is long term suspended and needs work sent home each day... and more than half are from single or no parent homes with problems beyond what is fair for someone at such a young age.

It's overwhelming. SO teach to the test is what happens. Teachers are not the problem. We are failing them... not the other way around.

John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a member of a local school board. I really struggle with the bullying tactics of the so-called elitist principals and superintendents who believe they are the subject matter experts. They degree from on high, intimidate and if it fails, blame the teachers. Of course, as a board member, it is hard to critic various curriculum proposals other than to ask a lot of questions. Our teachers are most qualified to assess and adjust teaching methods for our children. I still do not agree with the testing methods, in PA it is the PSSA, because we end up teaching to the test vice the understanding of concepts.

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