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Boosting Schools Without Spending a Dime -- Your Ideas

My suggestions last month [Metro Monday column, Feb. 16] for raising achievement in budget-cutting times inspired an outpouring of reader ideas. Some were interesting, such as tougher honor rolls, more reading clubs and more speaking practice. Some were wild, such as my favorite, eliminating school buses.

A lot of people yearned, as I did, for simpler approaches that drew parents into schooling, thus strengthening family ties and improving education while saving money. Most of us admitted that few, if any, of our suggestions will be adopted, but keep in mind that hardly anyone believed the Boston Red Sox would ever win the World Series again.

I had seven ideas: replace elementary school homework with free reading; eliminate barriers to charter school growth; have teachers call parents to praise their kids; have parents e-mail educators to laud their teaching; require high school students to read at least one nonfiction book; call on every child in every class; and declare a national holiday on which everyone reads. As I expected, my charter school notion was unpopular, but President Obama has since made it a top priority anyway. Good luck with that, Mr. President. All the rest won reader support, particularly the first idea on homework. I will get to that after we review the most intriguing of your suggestions.

Jackie McMakin was serious about changing the way students get to school: “Cut out school buses. For those who live far away, give vouchers on public transportation. Set up bike racks in schools and bike trails to schools. That would save on pollution, be one answer to obesity and give kids the independence and space they need to move into the world as independent citizens. Walking or cycling to school is one of my fondest memories. Why are we depriving our kids of this pleasure?”

Many readers praised my emphasis on reading. But Jeffrey Hacker, who teaches at Beall Elementary School in Rockville, suggested our children spend more time speaking: “With a minimum of training, any teacher can infuse oral language development experiences into the context of any lesson, be it math, science or physical education. ... Strategies to get students to develop their speaking skills rarely get beyond the often heard request that students ‘speak in a complete sentence.’” Hacker trains teachers on ways to make lessons more participatory for all students, highlighting correct speech and enhancing acquisition of academic vocabulary. I agree that speaking clearly and forcefully is a confidence builder, and great teachers embrace it.

A reader identified as lk11 asked that schools do something else quite simple: raise the bar on their academic awards. “In Montgomery County being on the honor roll means you have a B average. That is, if you have a C or two, you can still be honor roll. When I was in school honor roll meant all As and Bs, and I had to deal with the fact that Cs weren’t good enough. That made me work harder.”

Several insightful, no-cost ideas came from a high school parent identified as MLC1: “Enlist greater parent involvement 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 school 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 over the parents whom they already know from having an older child in the school. I unsuccessfully attempted to get on the school email list numerous times during my child’s first three 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?”

As there are overlooked parents, not part of the popular crowd, there are also overlooked students, MCL1 noted: “The school and PTSO currently spend lots of money on so-called character-building programs. Meanwhile the favoritism is rampant. The school needs to start considering each child's strengths and talents instead of giving the automatic advantage to the ones whose names they know. Students who are cut from activities or sports should be given suggestions for alternate activities within the school instead of being made to feel unwanted and unwelcome.”

This is, in my view, one of those underground problems made worse by the fact that schools rarely address it. The best educators know that character building starts with every child at the school developing a strong relationship with at least one caring adult. Sports and activities are natural vehicles for such contact, so why would a school tell a child with a deep interest in some after-school pastime that there is no room for her?

A reader identified as mcleangirl said administrative thick-headedness might also get in the way of my suggestion that teachers, once or twice a day, reward a student who had done a good job by calling the kid’s parent right from the classroom. At her school, she said, “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.”

I was happy to see so many readers endorse my call for replacing elementary school homework with free reading. The student would choose what to read. The teacher would find some way to make random checks -- maybe a few questions in class -- to make sure everybody is reading something. John Martin, founder of the Boys Read literacy program in Seattle, said the idea fit nicely with the informal reading circles he is establishing. Research indicates that students who do no elementary school homework achieve just as much as those who do, so why not junk busywork in favor of encouraging a lovely lifelong habit?

Fine, said inthetrenches1, the sign-on name of a teacher, but be prepared for disappointment. “This has been my homework policy for years -- and usually ignored by the very parents whose children need it most,” the teacher said. “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.”

This teacher sought an exception to the no-homework rule: “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.”

That's okay with me. None of these ideas is going anywhere anytime soon, not even the one that the president has put on his list. But it doesn’t cost anything to dream, and I have learned life is full of surprises.

By Washington Post editors  | March 20, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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I would urge the schools to recruit retired professionals in IT, engineering, and other technical fields to teach computer classes in the Microsoft Office Suite and actually offer online courses for kids who are interested in getting summer credit but might be working in summer jobs away from the public schools. Thses kids do not have to own a computer. Most public libraries give access to patrons to a computer with internet capability. Many kids both rich and poor do not have a good work ethic. The rich kids do not work because their parents give them pocket money and credit cards and the poor kids watch TV and think work is not the road to success. America does not foster a good work ethic. Emphasize more work-study programs as part of a high school program. College prep kids can get jobs in local government. If they are interested in environmental studies, for example,they can assist environmental engineers with simple calculations or office work. If they are interested in law, they can work in the legal department of the local or state government. If they are interested in careers in the arts, they can become interns in arts organizations.

Posted by: eyemakeupneeded1 | March 20, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

You can't be serious about the buses, can you? What about areas where there is no convenient public transportation? Or sidewalks? Do you have any idea how much creating new bike trails costs? At what age do you start -- high school? Middle school? Elementary school?

This isn't a cost-saver, it's a cost-transferer. To the public transit agency who has to add new bus lines to serve the school. To the parks agency who has to figure out and fund the new bike trails (and go through all the environmental reviews and fight off the challenges from people who don't want a new public trail going through their backyards). To the parents who don't want their 14-year-old girl walking alone to her 7:45 high school start time in winter when it's still dark through a neighborhood without sidewalks, so who now have to take more time off work to give her a ride.

Look, I get the appeal. I walked or biked to school from the time I was 7. But we lived in neighborhoods with sidewalks, with lots of moms at home looking out for all the kids -- and everyone walked to school, so there were always packs of kids, which are both more visible to drivers and safer from potential predators.

Forcing people to do what you think they "should" doesn't tend to make a lot of converts. Carrots tend to work better than sticks. If you want to encourage walking and biking to school for the health benefits, then join the healthy schools movement. Start a campaign. A good place to start is with removing the obstacles that currently exist -- basic things like requiring new developments to have sidewalks (which is surprisingly contentious) and bike paths, so that people who want to walk or bike can do so safely. But don't take away a reasonable service that a lot of people need and rely on.

Posted by: laura33 | March 20, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Just a quick THANKS to MLC1. My local H.S. had one day a year in which interested parents could join with administrators is a walk-through of the school -- sitting through entire classes for the whole day. The students and teachers really appreciated the interest -- even though we were just a few people.

It also gave us great insight into which were the best teachers for our (particular) children -- and which they would do better to avoid.

BTW, at least as much as school choice, parents and students who were willing to investigate would benefit from "teacher choice". You can pick your preferred profs' sections in college --- why not H.S.? The great teachers would, as in college, be oversubscribed. Those who were awfully easy would be oversubscribed as well and might consider adding a little more rigor. And those who were avoided like HIV could decide whether they wanted to try to make their class more stimulating, to ease up a little on the extra assignments, or to keep doing what they were doing for those (relatively few) students who chose to enroll in their classes.

Parents would certainly take more interest in teachers and teaching if they felt there was some possibility of matching their students with those who might be best for them.

Posted by: mct210 | March 21, 2009 7:45 AM | Report abuse

Guess what Mr m
Mathews? many teachers already send congratulatory emails and notes to parents when their students achieve. Moany list and post students of the month, the day, the week on their bulletin boards. It would behoove you as it would behoove most education"experts" to poll teachers and ask what their practices are. What you are doing is similar to teaching statistics without
ever taking a course.

Posted by: p12m25u40 | March 22, 2009 7:59 PM | Report abuse

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