We have two sets of primary and secondary schools in this country. One set of schools lies in wealthy areas in which student achievement is quite high. The other set of schools lies in poor urban areas or extreme isolated rural areas in which poverty is pervasive and student achievement is dismal. We know what to do to improve the quality of education in under performing schools. As a country, we do not have the will to do it. There are several reforms that will make education so much better for those in poverty.
Increase Early Childhood Education
The Chicago economist, James Heckman, Nobel prize economist, analyzed data from Michigan and North Carolina going back several decades and found that no other infusion of public dollars came close to matching the rate of return of high-quality early childhood education. Heckman's studies in both the Michigan (the Perry Preschool Study) and North Carolina (the Abecedarian preschool program) studies concluded that there were significant health benefits, increased employment and increased education among young children studied over their lifetime.
Develop the Whole Child
The current clamoring to focus on cognitive skills is absurd. There is ample evidence that a more holistic education approach pays big dividends. One study, a 2016 study at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, found that musical experiences in childhood can actually accelerate brain development, particularly in the areas of language acquisition and reading skills. "Music ignites all areas of child development and skills for school readiness: intellectual, social and emotional, motor, language, and overall literacy. It helps the body and the mind work together" (Bright Horizons). Yet what has happened to musical programs in schools since the adoption of No Child Left Behind and its successor programs? Schools focus only on cognitive skills and have eliminated music programs.
There are several studies that demonstrate a link between arts education and academic achievement. It is a story similar to the effect music education has on academic achievement. James Catterall among others has studied the link between arts education and academic achievement for low-income students. He found that low-income and ELL (English Language Learners) students do better in arts-rich rather than arts-poor schools. Ample evidence exists for a far more holistic approach that includes music an arts programs as a vital part of a young person's education.
Vocational Education & Links to Industry
There were many absurdities to the federal law, No Child Left Behind, and its successors but the worst was that all children needed to be college ready. Whatever happened with working with our hands? As a public servant working in city and state government and later as a university professor, I can attest that my electrician made more money than I did. No matter how technology changes, we will always need electricians, woodworkers, plumbers, etc. When our country started replacing shop classes with computer labs, we started down a very foolish road. This does not mean we should ignore the new technologies but we can incorporate new technologies into close ties with the vocational world and link our schools to industries that hire our graduates. This is one strategy that Mayor Bloomberg adoped. He greatly increased the number of technical high schools and linked these schools to industry.
Lessen Testing Requirements
There is ample evidence that emphasis on testing simply means that teachers and administrators focus on constant drilling and less teaching and learning. However, the evidence is ignored. I will leave you with just one website that explains testing. However, what the emphasis on testing in our schools does do is ignore all the other skills are students need - social and emotional, motor, language, and my favorite, music and art. More on testing in another blog.
Understand the Effects of Poverty on Children
I don't think Americans appreciate how poverty affects learning. Part of this ignorance is because those who now control educational policy reform in this country are not from the education world but rather from the private sector. These business leaders are ignorant of child development theories, do not travel in the educational world and are not exposed to educational theories about the basic concepts of child development, and they tend to hire whiz kids from the "best" colleges who have no understanding of how children learn, let alone children in poverty. I once talked to an educational policy analyst for the Bloomberg administration who would not dream of reading an education journal. She did, however, read the Harvard Business Review. If you wish to understand how poverty affects learning, read the article, "How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement," in Educational Leadership or read the "Long Term Cognitive and Academic Effects of Early Childhood Education on Children in Poverty" in Preventive Medicine. Although I myself read the Harvard Business Review, I also read education journals that have the latest in child development theories. Also read Cantor on poverty and trauma. .
If we were simply to make these changes in our schools: increase preschool education, develop holistic education, lessen testing requirements, and expand vocational education and provide more links to industry, we would see improvements in under performing schools. If we were to reduce poverty, we would see massive positive changes in our schools.