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Improvement by Subtraction

Here are three things education would be better off without.

Whoever came up with the phrase "No Child Left Behind" deserves a promotion. Marketers everywhere have played off the name. From "No teacher left behind" to "No superintendent left behind" and "No board member left behind," there's no end to the people and programs that shouldn't be left behind. Yet, amidst all this ambition to keep everyone on board, I'm inspired to name three things in public education that should be left behind.

State-level Textbook Adoption Policies

State regulated textbook adoption policies are detrimental to educational progress because they inhibit publishers, limit curriculum choices and vest authority in state boards over local boards to decide what's best for students.

There's simply no justification for big schools.

More than 20 states have textbook adoption regulations, but most textbook decisions are really made by a handful of bureaucrats in California, Texas and Florida. These people are able to micro-manage textbook content because they command more than 30 percent of the multi-billion dollar textbook market. Far removed from any classroom, these textbook adoption committees have remarkable power to determine the resources available to teachers, reinforcing the problematic notion that the textbook is the curriculum.

Worse, the process of "approving" just a handful of texts to meet the needs of all learners yields a sanitized de facto national curriculum that stifles creative teaching and limits student achievement.

Consider, for example, the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress report in which only one of the top 10 states on the achievement measure had a textbook adoption policy. Of the bottom 10 states, nine had state-level textbook adoption policies. Eliminating state-regulated textbook adoptions will spur curriculum innovation, reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, and most important, better serve the academic needs of children.

The Agricultural Calendar

The thought of no summer vacation seems almost un-American, but year-round schooling doesn't mean no recess. For example, school districts can achieve a modest increase in the number of school days by having four 10-week sessions with two-week breaks after sessions one, two and three, and a generous six-week "summer" break at the end of session four.

Districts can get even more school in and still have ample breaks by having two 23-week semesters, with two weeks off during each semester and a three-week break between semesters. The point is that the standard configuration of the traditional 180-day school year is neither sacrosanct nor a societal necessity.

Big Schools

There's simply no justification for big schools. The old argument that big schools enable more electives is easily left behind by today's technologies, which make it easier for geographically dispersed students and teachers to meet and interact. And the Internet lets even the smallest schools have access to the libraries of the world. These advances, combined with the increased safety, security and sense of community inherent to smaller schools, make big schools untenable.

But this country is full of big schools. Of course districts can't just build new schools everywhere, but they can ensure that all new schools are designed as small schools. Where new construction isn't viable, districts can pursue creative and cost-efficient retrofits that enable administrators to effectively house several "schools" in the same physical plant.

The big schools challenge reminds me of the man who called his state senator to advocate the widening of an old highway. The senator agreed, but said it would take 20 years to complete the job. The man responded, "Then shouldn't we get started now?"

Apparently, Bill Gates thinks so. America's largest philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has vowed billions to turn big, poor performing schools into small, academically rigorous ones. By getting started now, this organization thinks that by the end of the decade the country can quadruple the number of inner-city students prepared for college. And that's just the beginning; the sooner we leave big schools behind, the better.