The problems in public education are worrisome and well-documented: lagging math and science scores, shaky skills in reading and writing, growing numbers of students reaching college ill-prepared—or simply not getting there at all. But the search for solutions can often seem more like a competition to fling blame, with fault found in everything from overworked teachers and an outmoded academic structure to value-added assessment and an overemphasis on standardized testing. There are no clear-cut answers, no simple paths to fixing what’s broken in public schools. But what if administrators were given a magic wand and the Harry Potter-like ability to cast a spell and cure what ails the education system? What would they replace or reinvent or just raze outright if there were no logistical, financial, or political concerns? No real-life constraints? What would they change? That was the question District Administration’s writer Monica Rhor posed to a virtual roundtable of superintendents, representing a diverse collection of school districts. Their pie-in-the-sky proposals ranged from doing away with a rigid grade system and reworking the academic calendar year to implementing early childhood education and tossing out textbooks. At the heart of all the wishful thinking, however, there was a common thread: the idea that the public education system must find a way to adapt to the unique needs of individual students in individual districts.
Delwood Community School District, Delmar, Iowa
The first thing I would change would be the school year. We still run on an August through May school year and take off three months in the summer. We lose a lot of time doing that and I don’t see the necessity of doing that. Year-round school makes more sense, especially at the elementary level. We spend, I don’t know how much time, a month, sometimes six weeks, getting students back to where we left them off in May. There’s such a loss of academics during that time. I think it would be so much wiser to have logical breaks through the year. Another thing I would change would be specific grade levels. If we went to more of a mastery system where students who are able to move on at a different time could move on, it would be something that would benefit them. Sometimes they are ready to move faster than we are allowing them now, or vice versa, maybe we’re pushing them too fast. The pace isn’t good for them. We have these grades and that dictates where students should be, rather than going by where the student really is. I think we have it backwards now.
Members of the District Administration Leadership Institute speak about their ideas on reimagining school if they had no restrictions, no worries about money and no political concerns.
Sampson County Schools, Clinton, N.C.
Let’s reinvent the high school model and look at what we want kids to know by the time they graduate. In North Carolina, the emphasis is on college and career readiness. Some kids may be ready at 17, some at 18, some at 19. And that’s okay. Here, we do have kids who graduate in 3 ½ years. We need to give kids more opportunities to do that. These models were invented 100 or 120 years ago. That model is outdated and could be revamped to meet the needs of the kids. I would also get rid of textbooks and use iPad tablets or Microsoft-based tablets. If I could wave my magic wand, I would convince parents that’s the right thing. Parents like textbooks, but I think there are a lot of plusses to getting rid of textbooks. Tablets are more hands-on and can be used to make the classes mean something to kids and to show how to apply what they are learning to real-world situations.
Forest Lake (Minn.) Area School District
One of the things I would probably look at is a restructuring of education so that it’s not so much age specific or grade specific, but more competency-based. As they accomplish specific skills, they can move on to the next level. Some kids get bored when they’ve got it and are ready to move on. Some kids get frustrated when they don’t get it. It would require a lot of assessing along the way and as kids get used to it, they would be able to self-monitor. You could take kids and group them together because of their interest and their knowledge, and continually regroup them. Sometimes, you could group them temporarily for a day, sometimes for a month. Of course, to do that you need buildings that are fairly close together or have the students all in one building. You also need teachers who are able to adapt and who understand child development. It would take a different view of what we do, but it would be easy for teachers to do if they had the structure, physical plant, and support. Everyone also looks to schools for other services, such as immunizations, eye exams, and mental health services, so I’d make it easier. We would not necessarily provide those services, but we would engage community agencies that provide the services. I’d be interested in having our staff know where the resources are, so our students can get them.
Apache Junction (Ariz.) Unified School District
If I could wave my magic wand, I would wish to re-engage in a meaningful way an awareness in communities across our state and country of how important public education is and what value it gives to us as a community, as a nation, and as an economy. One of the real values in education is that it really is the gatekeeper for individuals to have opportunities and for our democracy to have an educated electorate. If you have a quality education, you’re going to have a chance. I think those words sometimes get lost in the rhetoric and when you think about what that really means, it really puts quality public education into the forefront of significance and importance that it might not necessarily be in society’s eyes today. Then, in my mind at least, you can start talking about changes around those core beliefs: How are things going to have to look different? What will the calendars look like? What will buildings look like? How does technology play a role? Why is it that we have 180 days in Arizona for schooling and for some kids it may take 185? For some kids, it’s going to be 155. Shouldn’t that be okay? On top of that, technology can be a game changer for a lot of kids. When you have districts that have a hard time finding AP courses, finding IB and college prep, technology is beginning to create an opportunity to facilitate those courses. When we talk about individualized instruction, it can be really hard to do, but technology can help allow that to be done more seamlessly. When we talk about taking kids from just regurgitation to application, to using app-based learning through Common Core, technology can help. But learning is a relational event, so when we’re talking about technology or when we’re talking about calendar changes, ultimately it’s going to be dependent on the relational ability we have as adults to relate to kids.
Oak Hills Local School District, Cincinnati, Ohio
I would design a system that requires parents to begin the education of children during their first five or six years of life to prepare them for the higher-level content delivered in school. From the time a child is born, the education process begins. That process should be positive and deliberate. The rigor of school readiness should increase along with the expectations of parents in the process. I would implement a more individualized education program for students. Our focus should be on mastery of content, not grades and grade promotion. Research clearly demonstrates that children of all ages learn at different rates and through a variety of learning styles. If a child does not understand a concept or cannot apply knowledge and skills, they should not be expected to move on until some level of mastery is demonstrated. Of course this approach would require changes to our outdated school calendars and schedules to better meet the needs of all students.