Reforming school seemed such a promising idea. Improve the institution and student achievement will rise. Restructure the school day and learning will blossom.
Ten years into the process, I think we have wasted our time. Students will learn more effectively when teaching
improves. And good teaching starts with coherent lesson plans.
Will Rogers said, "You can't teach what you don't know any more than you can come back from where you
ain't been." Too often that is exactly what we expect teachers to do. Few public schools have a clearly defined and mandated curriculum that includes guidelines for what should happen in the classroom. In fact, the practice is considered unprofessional and demeaning to the creativity of teachers. But what could be more "unprofessional" than 23-year-olds fresh from college figuring out for themselves how to teach "The Catcher in the Rye"? Over the years, the novel has been taught effectively once or twice before. Wouldn't it be more sensible to have at hand an experienced teacher's lesson plan and modify it later as experience dictates?
When I began teaching junior high, I had a solid English major under my belt. But classes in Milton, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Shakespeare had done little to prepare me for teaching eighth-grade English.
My education classes offered me help with classroom management, but by and large I was making it up, day by day. I brought in stories I thought students would enjoy reading, and over time figured out ways to get them writing.
I enjoyed the challenge of creating lessons in this manner, and over the past 25 years, if what my students tell me is true, I have turned out to be a reasonably effective teacher. Looking back, however, I find this an extraordinarily haphazard method of curriculum design. Where was the accountability or the institutionalized feedback from other professionals?
By law in Japan, first-year teachers have 60 full days of in-service training. Novices spend most of their first year with a mentor teacher in their classroom and are observed eight times by the rest of their colleagues. These critical friends point out where the new teacher has succeeded and where she has failed. Japanese educators believe that it takes about 10 years to learn to be a teacher. Much of that decade is spent working with other teachers, crafting and refining effective lessons.
Instead of focusing on helping young teachers improve the content of their teaching, we have distracted them with the illusion of school reform, engaging them in debate over whether class periods should be 45, 55, or 105 minutes long.
If all the energy that has been expended over restructuring the school day had instead been directed toward designing powerful curriculum, I don't think it would matter a jot what times we rang the school bells.
The district where I teach, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified in California, has always been fortunate to attract gifted teachers who devote themselves, head and heart, to teaching. As a result, the quality of what goes on in our classrooms is for the most part excellent. It could be better, though. A thousand teachers making tiny little discoveries in their own classrooms will never create systemic change. It's time to stop watching the clock and pay attention to content.
* Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at the UCLA.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society