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Boosting Schools' Value Without Spending a Dime

As happens in every recession, Washington area school systems are cutting back. It's depressing. Here's an antidote: Harness the creativity of educators, parents and students to improve our schools without more spending. Some teachers I trust helped me come up with these seven ideas.

1. Replace elementary school homework with free reading. Throw away the expensive take-home textbooks, the boring worksheets and the fiendish make-a-log-cabin-out-of-Tootsie-Rolls projects. One of the clearest (and most ignored) findings of educational research is that elementary students who do lots of homework don't learn more than students who do none. Eliminating traditional homework for this age group will save paper, reduce textbook losses and sweeten home life. Students should be asked instead to read something, maybe with their parents -- at least 10 minutes a night for first-graders, 20 minutes for second-graders and so on. Teachers can ask a few kids each day what they learned from their reading to discourage shirkers.

2. Unleash charter schools. I know, I know. Many good people find this suggestion as welcome as a call from a collection agency. They think charter schools, public schools that make their own rules, are draining money from school systems, but the opposite seems to be true. In most states, charters receive fewer tax dollars per child than regular public schools. Yet they often attract creative principals and teachers who do more with less. School finance experts don't all agree, but I am convinced that charters are a bargain. So let's have more. That won't save money in the District, one of the few places that pay as much for charters as regular schools, but Maryland and Virginia would find more charters a boon if they dropped their suburban, aren't-we-great notions and listened to what imaginative educators in a few little charter schools could teach them.

3. Have teachers call or e-mail parents -- once a day would be fine -- with praise for their children. Some great classroom teachers make a habit of contacting parents when kids do something well. Jason Kamras, 2005 national teacher of the year and now a leading D.C. schools executive, used to punch up the parent's number on his cellphone while standing next to a student's desk. It doesn't take long. It doesn't cost much. But it nurtures bonds among teachers, students and parents that can lead to wonderful things.

4. Have parents call or e-mail teachers with praise. Successful teachers are often taken for granted. Struggling teachers need moral support. Both kinds would be fortified by a friendly message. They would also learn something from what parents say is working for their children.

5. Have every high school student read at least one nonfiction book before graduation. I am not talking about textbooks. Will Fitzhugh, publisher of the Concord Review, a journal of high school research papers, has been campaigning for nonfiction school reading. I was surprised, when I looked into it, how overloaded high school reading lists are with fiction. Nonfiction, with all those facts, is often more challenging for this age group. Good. If every English teacher substituted one nonfiction book for one novel on the required list, schools would improve without any extra expense.

6. Encourage teachers to call on every student in every class. Teachers who have exceptional results talk to me a lot about this. A lesson has to be a conversation, they say. Every student has to be involved. I have been in many classrooms where the teacher does most, sometimes all, of the talking. I imagine many teachers follow this rule, but it seems to me worth urging all of them to try it. It is, again, a change of attitude and method that costs nothing.

7. Furlough everybody -- including teachers, students and parents -- for an unpaid national reading holiday. This will never happen. But small experiments might work for some schools or communities. My wife will be taking an unpaid week's furlough soon with all the other employees of her company to cut costs. She will likely spend some of that time reading to our 2-month-old grandson, hoping the words soak in. If everyone set aside a day for books (or maybe, dare I hope, newspapers), we might regain a sense of what a quiet day of reading can do for the soul. Forgoing one day's pay would unite the country in something we haven't seen in some time: mutual sacrifice. (Those in thriving industries could donate the money to a good cause.) We could hold the national reading day in April, school test prep season, so kids wouldn't miss much. Free reading has always been my favorite frugal school fix. Even a few more minutes a day can't hurt.

If you have cost-free ideas to improve schools, post them in the comments section or e-mail me:

-- Jay Mathews

By Washington Post Editors  | February 16, 2009; 9:06 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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As a Curriculum Director who tries to mandate only reading as homework in our elementary schools, I would be interested in a link to the research you cite that elementary homework is ineffective.

Loved the article, especially #1-3-4-5-6 and am going to encourage our district to adopt these positive ideas.

Posted by: kmckennamn | February 16, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Engage in a network of meaningful learning. Since the 1970s, concept mapping has spread across the globe as an important tool to support meaningful learning. Concept maps were developed in 1972 in the course of Joseph Novak’s research program at Cornell where he sought to follow and understand changes in children’s knowledge of science. Dr. Novak’s program was based on the learning psychology of David Ausubel, who found that learning takes place by the assimilation of new concepts and propositions into existing concept and propositional frameworks held by the learner. Out of the necessity to find a better way to represent children’s conceptual understanding emerged the idea of representing children’s knowledge in the form of a concept map. To enable computer-based creation and sharing of concept maps, the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition developed CmapTools, an advanced software tool that the Institute provides free to anyone who wishes to engage in the worldwide community of concept mappers. Learners, teachers, parents and administrators can also engage through the Concept Mapping Conference website, which freely provides copious research materials on the demonstrated impacts of concept mapping.

In support of the growth of the concept mapping community, we offer Cmapology, an In-service workshop that instructs on CmapTools and strategies for classroom integration. To further Jay’s antidote, we wish to offer our one-day workshop free to five Washington area schools. Interested schools may contact me directly or through our website – And we strongly encourage everyone interested in meaningful learning to visit to learn more about CmapTools and download the powerful free software!

Brian Moon
Chief Technology Officer
Perigean Technologies LLC

Posted by: Brian_Moon | February 16, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

My child attends a good high school, but it could be a lot better. My no cost suggestions are:
1. Enlist greater parent involement by being more welcoming to parents. It is often said that parents become less involved as their children enter high school, but part of the problem lies with the high schools. At my child's h.s. the front office staff is unfriendly and generally unhelpful. The teachers are great,but I am tired of being barely acknowledged at back-to-school nights while they fawn all over the parents who they already know from having an older child in the school. I unsuccessfully attempted to get on the school e mail list numerous times during my child's first 3 years in the school. I volunteered at a sports event during my child's freshman year and endured snotty comments from parents whose children played another sport. Is it any wonder why I no longer bother?
2. Be more welcoming to ALL students, not just the athletes, popular kids and favorites. The school and PTSO currently spend lots of money on so-called "character building" programs. Meanwhile the favoritism is rampent. The school needs to start considering each child strengths and talents instead of giving the automatic advantage to the ones who's name they know. (my own high school frequently used judges from other schools to combat this). Students who are "cut" from activities/sports should be given suggestions for alternate activites within the school instead of being made to feel unwanted and unwelcome. More students can be included in academic honors if the obnoxious practice of honor assemblies where a handful of kids (not always the top students, either) walk off with 5 or 6 awards (each) while other deserving students leave empty handed. Administrators can show more support for activities such as debate, academic challenge ,OM, drama/chorus/band/musicals and lesser known sports instead of only football and (boys) basketball. Students who participate in a "varsity level" activity schould recieve aschool letter even if it is not a VHSL activity. I would love to see EVERY student in the school involved in an activity.

Posted by: MLC1 | February 16, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Many fine ideas. But I'll assume it's an editing error that led you to say that #3 should happen once a day. Some teachers have 150 pupils. Multiply that by three minutes of calling or emailing apiece and the teacher has an entire extra day of work, EVERY day. Two to three times a month would be fine with me.

Posted by: drrico | February 16, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

My apologies to drrico for being unclear. I was trying to say a teacher could call one kid's parent each day, just one call a day. That would be such a increase from the usual rate of calls of praise that I think it would make s big difference, even if it doesn't seem like much.

Posted by: jaymathews | February 16, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I don't always agree with everything you write, but today, you've done a fantastic job, particularly with #1 and #5.

How long will we have to put up with the lunacy of giving elementary school children homework? How many more kids will we drive to hate school by overburdening their early years with wasted time and effort? I really, REALLY hope that more elementary schools implement #1.

As for #5, it's a great idea because it could challenge kids to take in information about the world and evaluate it. They could explore the author's own biases. They could examine the issues raised in the book. Moreover, as people bemoan the lack of pleasure reading by boys, they should note that boys lag girls when it comes to reading FICTION and our English classes are heavily (if not entirely) skewed toward fiction, meaning that we have a serious bias there. We could get more boys into reading in general if we broaden out our idea of "pleasure reading" to include non-fiction.

I mean, the WaPo book reviewers frequently review non-fiction. So, clearly, it matters in terms of reading. So, why do schools give it such short shrift?

Posted by: rlalumiere | February 16, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

The problem with parent volunteers in high schools are twofold. First, for many of them volunteering in their child's high school is all about nostalgia. As a result, they want things to be just like their own high school experiences. For example, at the school where I work a number of mothers volunteered for the prom committee last year. When they met with the kids for the first time, the mothers announced what the decorations were going to be before they even consulted the students, teachers, or administrators.

Which ties into the second problem with parent volunteers -- they simply don't understand how a bureaucracy like a public school works, especially when it comes to money. I've had many discussions with well meaning parents who spend hundreds of dollars on things for the school and then seek reimbursement. When I ask them if they had spoken to someone in advance about it or if a purchase order had been approved beforehand I get confused looks or dirty looks. Alternatively, parents don't respect the chain of command. They go to the DSA before they go to the coach or they go to the principal before the assistant principal. As a result it creates more tension for faculty and staff because we have to deal with the reprecussions of an uninformed supervisor.

Posted by: Rob63 | February 16, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I began reading to my daughter when she was a few months old...every day....with classical music playing. By eight months, she was turning the pages. I intentionally would skip a page to see if she knew I missed it - and she did! We taped her favorite stories so that after the first reading of the night, she could listen and follow along. She had to be in bed every night by 8 o'clock but not she would listen to her taped books after the evening reading time. We went to every story hour on earth - even at the beach in the summer. At 4 yrs. old, I thought she was a genius because she could, she had actually memorized "Arthur's Eyes." She was a superb elementary school student, winning reading contests on a regular basis. When there was no homework early on, I made her worksheets. I could leave her in bookstores for hours and as an older reader, she loved meeting famous authors.

She was not a great student in prep school and did OK in college, but no Phi Beta Kappa. On the other hand, she went to bed with a book in her hand every night and still does...when she moves to a new town, the first thing she does is get a library card. She never gets on a plane without a book and now, as a very successful young businesswoman, I realize that I gave her the very best gift a parent can give a child - the gift of reading to her with this gift turning into her loving to read.

You don't need new books, Goodwill and even your town dump is a great source...Libraries are a wonder and open up the world to young and old. Even magazines encourage and promote reading skills. Reading is a free gift and I'm so glad that my daughter, now engaged, will pass it on to her children...with love.

Posted by: carolineC1 | February 16, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

"Jason Kamras, 2005 national teacher of the year and now a leading D.C. schools executive, used to punch up the parent's number on his cellphone while standing next to a student's desk. It doesn't take long. It doesn't cost much. But it nurtures bonds among teachers, students and parents that can lead to wonderful things."

Ha ha. No cellphones allowed anywhere during school hours. As a teacher, I was written up because my cellphone rang in class. My daughter was home sick and vomiting, but I got a demerit for letting her call to me in an emergency. Principal said I should have had her leave a message with the busy front desk. Right.

Teachers are disrespected every day by their bosses, their charges, and their charges' parents.

Posted by: mcleangirl | February 16, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I do not agree with every one of your suggestions, but #1 is genius! I have been saying that most homework is a colossal waste of time, ruins family evenings and turns children off of school, reading and learning. However, I have never thought about how EXPENSIVE homework is to schools! Politicians and administrators don't seem to care that too much homework is bad for students, but too expensive? That might get their attention!

Posted by: familyhomeworkanswers | February 16, 2009 6:48 PM | Report abuse

mcleangirl, you raise a great issue. could you tell me, either here or at, which school district that was?

Posted by: jaymathews | February 17, 2009 1:42 AM | Report abuse

Hi Jay,
Love your suggestions. Here is mine: about once every six weeks I have lunch with my 4th grade son's school team (classroom teacher, special ed resource person, school social worker). We talk about him, ourselves, the weather--whatever. It fosters communication, helps us figure out what is working (or not) and builds bonds. It costs nothing. I wish I could do the same with my older son's teachers.

We as parents get invited to meetings and parties. A simple lunch-- in which there is no set agenda, no distractions, just face time--would be so much more valuable.

Posted by: Clio1 | February 17, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I don't always agree with you but these ideas are spot on (well, maybe not the one about teachers calling parents on their cell phones from the classroom).

Posted by: roald | February 17, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

This has been my homework policy for years--and usually ignored by the very parents whose children need it most. Because it's not "real" bookwork, it's not important. I actually had a student taken out and sent to private school, because they have "real" homework there.

Note: Would it be acceptable (please!) to ask the parents to run through multiplication flash cards for 15 minutes a day, until the students have them memorized? We're covering so much math, students aren't getting the basic facts down and memorized--and it makes a huge difference in how students do in math and how they view math.

Posted by: inthetrenches1 | February 17, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

#3 is a partially good idea. At my last school the principal suggested we send out happy notes as you suggest. Parents realize when you are blowing smoke up their skirts.

Instead, I sent out detailed grade reports every week to every parent for which I had an email address. Instead of getting a smiley face card, the parents got real time information about the progress of their children.

Posted by: ggartner | February 18, 2009 5:40 AM | Report abuse

There is one really good thing about elementary school homework - it is the only way for parents to find out what type of work their child is doing on a day to day basis. Our schools shut parents out at every turn. I never have any idea what is happening in my kids classrooms. One 15 minute conference twice a year is not enough time to find out! Without homework, the textbooks and workbooks would never come home and I would never know what areas my child is having difficulty with.

Posted by: bkmny | February 18, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

(B)kmny writes that "(o)ur schools shut parents out at every turn." Such, too, was the case in a neighboring public school system until the hiring of a superintendent who promoted the concept of community-based education. Now, leading-edge administrators do not await parents and other stakeholders at the schoolhouse door. These principals, assistant principals, graduation coaches and counselors, rather, recruit parents and other neighborhood residents to visit the school and serve as tutors and mentors with encouraging consequences for student discipline and engagement.

Posted by: craigspinks | February 19, 2009 1:07 AM | Report abuse

As a classroom teacher, I've checked students' reading logs/records for years.
Lots of times the log is faked.Sometimes faked with their parent's help. This year I'm asking students to take AR tests when they've finished a book. Reading is my passion, but in order to ensure that they're reading, you need accountability. (I've been teaching since 1989.)

Posted by: teach3 | February 19, 2009 7:21 AM | Report abuse

As a teacher and children's author, I'm impressed with this list, particularly the emphasis on free reading time for kids, which makes an enormous difference in overall academic achievement.

I'd also add to the list #11) Go outside. So many teachers miss the opportunity to expand their classrooms by using the natural and community resources in their own neighborhoods. The concept of place-based education -- encouraging students to learn more about the world by taking a closer look at the details of the place they call home -- is perfect for these economic times.

Projects like local career exploration field trips can help students to develop communication and social studies skills. School yard gardens, insect studies, and tree identification can foster not only scientific inquiry but also a greater sense of ecology. Those projects can be paired with related literature studies, mixing fiction and nonfiction. It's authentic learning with a much lower price tag than basal readers and workbooks.

Kate Messner
Teacher & Author
(Walker Books for Young Readers, Sept. 1, 2009)

Posted by: KateMessner | February 19, 2009 7:59 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to echo two things.

bkmny is right. Elementary school homework is often the only way that parents know week-to-week what's going on academically. A few teachers I know have a weekly classroom newsletter that they send home every Monday, not only describing what they're studying but telling parents how they can support what's going on in class. This is a great replacement for the busywork worksheets (unless a student really needs that devoted practice on a skill).

Also, #5 is really important because the reading tests that students take are weighted heavily toward nonfiction passages. This isn't the space to debate the current state of testing or overtesting. But we have to live with it under the current implementation of NCLB. Students need to know how to read nonfiction just as much as they need to know how to read fiction (perhaps more).

Posted by: cvitiello | February 20, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

GREAT IDEAS! Actually number 3 is powerful - imagine shutting down school for 15 minutes at the end of the day and have teachers make 5 POSITIVE calls to end their school day - There is a syndrome in teaching - the worst kid of the day is the only kid that day - this would be a nice counter

Posted by: petercat926 | February 20, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

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