Using time and resources more efficiently will help improve education
By Steve Schultz
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns by locals involved with education about how to improve our public schools.
We hear a lot about the need to reform and improve public education. Business leaders are concerned about our nation’s ability to compete internationally. In the president’s State of the Union address, he said that we as a nation need to “out educate and out innovate the world.”
I agree with all of that. But I would suggest if schools are failing nationally it is less because schools themselves are resistant to change, but perhaps because we, as a nation, have a limited view of reform.
Though there are some things that need to continue from previous approaches to education, the necessary change is not as simple as going back to schools of the good old days or additional legislated mandates. High expectations and accountability are important. However, while some legislation has helped the state and our district improve, others have created costly bureaucracy that hampers reform efforts. We simply have to think differently about how schools need to improve
The students today are facing a future with more challenges and opportunities than any previous generation. Advances in technology and information processing permeate every kind of work. Math and science are more critical than ever to gain an understanding of technology, even in jobs that previously required no technical training. A thorough understanding of basic skills will be essential, but that will no longer be enough.
Our students must also be able to apply basic skills to solve complex problems, analyze data and process information to create new solutions. If our students are to be prepared to innovate in the modern workplace, they will not only need to know how to work independently but also in teams; face to face, as well as collaborating online. Students will need more than a high school diploma if they are to be prepared for responsible citizenship and productive employment in the modern economy.
So what needs to be done to accomplish this kind of reform? We need greater flexibility in how instructional time is used, a qualified teacher in every classroom with the necessary time for preparation, and more partnerships and collaboration with community organizations and businesses.
First, we need to think differently about how time is used for learning. We know students learn at different rates and in different ways. If a student needs additional instruction and practice, we must provide that opportunity, even if that means they do not graduate high school in the traditional four years. In that sense, time must be the variable of learning and education.
In the United States, the average school year is 180 days. Successful school systems around the world are 40 to 60 days longer. We must find a way to add days to our school year.
In addition, learning time should not be limited to traditional school hours. District 51 already provides a variety of extended learning opportunities before and after school including tutoring, mentoring, clubs and sports. These kinds of opportunities foster critical thinking and collaboration and should be expanded if resources allow.
Second, we must ensure there is a qualified teacher in every classroom who has the necessary time for preparation. Research confirms that the greatest influence on student achievement is a qualified and effective teacher. Today’s teacher needs continuous training to maintain and increase the precision of instruction. District 51 provides training as resources allow. Mesa State College, in collaboration with District 51, offers our teachers and principals professional learning and advanced degrees. These efforts need to continue.
Teachers must also use time differently. The average teacher in the United States is in front of students actively teaching for over 1,100 hours each year. On the surface, this appears to be a good thing. However, in other successful school systems around the world, teachers are in front of students actively teaching for 600 to 800 hours each year. These teachers are not going home when they are not in front of students. Rather they are preparing to provide quality instruction. They spend this time analyzing student work, collaborating with their peers, and developing lesson plans.
Finally, we need to continue building seamless education systems from preschool through college. This can only be done with innovative and active partnerships. District 51 has strong partnerships with Western Colorado Community College, Mesa State College and other community organizations including the John McConnell Math and Science Center of Western Colorado and the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce.
By next fall, all four high schools will offer a “high school scholars program,” through which high school students can earn college credit. Seniors can also participate concurrently in college classes at the Mesa State campus.
Additionally, we have increased the opportunities for career and technical education that link career planning for students beginning in eighth grade. WCCC and Mesa State also provide extended learning opportunities for our students in the summer. District 51 offers students advance placement classes and the International Baccalaureate Program.
We also have a substantive partnership with the Math and Science Center. The center is helping New Emerson School develop a new emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Interns from Mesa State’s engineering program are working with elementary classes across the district on science lessons. In the future, these lessons will help guide the development of advanced science curriculum for use across the district.
The center is also working with the school district to provide extended learning opportunities for students and summer training for teachers.
Partnership with the business community is another important component. The 500 Plan developed by the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce provides one-on-one tutoring in reading and math to elementary students. So far this program has provided over 900 hours of additional practice for students.
While we have made significant progress in the use of time, teacher development and partnerships, there is still work to be done. Public education is a foundation of democracy in the United States. Given the challenges of the future, it is more critical than ever that we invest in our children. This is a challenge we should accept as a community. District 51 is committed to working with our community to support the success of every student. Now is the time to continue to invest in public education in the United States.
“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” — John F. Kennedy
Steve Schultz is superintendent of schools for District 51 in Mesa County.