What is good art?  What is good music?  What is good literature?  What is good politics?  What is good behavior….

First we need to realize this is an ongoing debate one that never gets answered to everyones satisfaction.  We are currently pursuing a plan of action dreamed up by David Coleman, founder of the curriculum behind Common Core, and many of us are rather appalled.  However,  I do not doubt the sincerity that he probably thinks he is doing society a great favor.

Like art, music, literature, politics, and behavior, good education means it is being talked about, discussed.   What makes one art piece better than another, is that is gets discussed a lot.  Probably the Mona Lisa is the most discussed painting ever, due to its longevity and power to create discussion in every subsequent generation…  Education is like that.  As soon as one puts a finger on how to make education beneficial, another problem arises.  Teaching is an art, not science…

However, that said, it does not mean we cannot create a dictionary of “best practices” compiled through trial and error across humanity. To do so, we must first understand some basic principals.

A   We are individuals; we all learn differently.. 

B.  We easily learn what we want to learn.

C.  Remembering long term is tied to emotions.

D.  Rigor and creativity, though opposites, are both very important to what makes us as humans.

E. The greater our exposure, the greater is our learning.

F. Money has very little to do with education; opportunity, everything.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, we hold these truths to be self-evident.  Perhaps sometime in the future one or two of them may be disproven,  but we don’t live in the future.  We live now.  Everyone of these can be backed up by the real observations pounding us from all sides in our real lives… So if we accept the principles are for the most part true, backed up both my science and experience,, then using them as a foundation to repair our educational system  would be like anchoring a skyscraper to bedrock, instead of shifting sand…

A   We are individuals; we all learn differently..

The ancients said we have five senses.  Sight, hearing, touch,  taste, and smell. .  We are finding we have an infinite number of senses, probably as many as we have neurons.  It is how those neurons were developed by forces genetic and environmental through gestation and early childhood, that determine how best to teach each child.    What this disparity does, is force the acknowledgement that the best learning occurs when there is individualized instruction,  give-and-take between the teacher and one taught.  “Do you understand this?  Do this then.  It looks like you don’t understand this little party.  Let me explain again.?  Do you understand it now?  Show Me.  Good. Lets move on to the next step.”

If we are all individuals then individualized instruction is our best solution.  Give everyone their own tutor… Oh if that was only possible!.  During America’s bright spot, that individual tutor was often a parent.  Our economics are not the same as they were then, and that possibility is no longer a viable one to expect all of society to adhere. We are a two working adult family society.  Which means all (95+%) education must come from our educational institutions.  How good or how bad those institutions will be, will determine our economic future….

What this proscribes, is that we develop a level where the teacher knows the student well enough and can in real time, overcome any obstacles that students stumble upon. The downside is too much instruction, does not give time for the teaching to sink in.  The best model available shows the proper balance to between around 11 students per teacher.  This group of teacher-and-11, means if the teacher wants, they have 5 minutes to spend observing every child, as well as 5 minutes to look at the group as a whole.  Compared to a classroom of 55, which would amount to 1 minute of observation per pupil.. Obviously in 1 minute or 60 seconds, one cannot assess  whether a child has graped or not, much less how to overcome that barrier so they can.

A second advantage in this 11 to 1 system, is that the students can be more homogeneous in their levels of ability.  The 11 to 1 concept worked well in our nation’s rural history, often with first graders in the same classrooms as teenagers. Imagine how much better it would move if everyone was near the same level?  With todays testing the categorizing could be simply done.  Divide the class up by the number of teachers and put student in based on the levels of their test scores…  This cuts down of the distance between the more and less talented of each group.  Simply put, the level of understanding among all students should be closer to par, enabling specialized instruction being focused on the top to drive them further, and on the bottom to help catch up….

We all learn differently.  The one method  approach teaches one of our methods very well while ignoring all the rest.  Only experienced teachers who have the time for trial and error on each child, can bring all children to their full potential.

B.  We easily learn what we want to learn.

Children are born curious.  Have you ever seen a small child who is un-inquisitive and who isn’t full of a thousand questions?  We tend to beat inquisitiveness out of our children.(shut up, sit down, stay on topic)  for it is in our genetic makeup to want to learn.  If we don’t learn in school, we still fill up our empty brains by leaning in other areas… If there is any prime problem with our nation’s schools and their failure to impart knowledge to our children, it is that they fail to take this natural ability of ours, our curiosity, and nurture it…

If we like something, we pursue avenues on our own to find out more.  If we don’t like something, our brain ignores it..  That is probably hard-wired in our system for a reason, perhaps to keep our species from going down the wrong track.  But it is there.  We can watch a 90 minute movie and know it by heart.  We can read a paragraph at work, look at the clock for a second and have no idea what we just read.

Every adult who “got” math… “got” it because it was fun.  Every adult who “got” chemistry, got it because it was fun.  Every pre-Med who “got” Organic Chemistry, “got” it because it was fun… It used to be our educational system was sold on getting cartoons to teach our children, because we were told, cartoons are fun for kids… That didn’t work. .. Although I chuckle when adults to this day, sing “Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function”…  As adults we know the song, but stumble when surprised and asked to define what a conjunction is and does… Point is, we learned the song, because face it… IT IS A GOOD SONG, but we really didn’t learn what it was trying to teach…. We learned the cartoons because the cartoons were interesting, but we failed to grasp what cartoons were trying to teach.

No.  To learn, we need teachers who make the subjects themselves… exciting…  Another reason for 11 to 1 student teacher ratios.  A teacher needs to know a child in order to explain concepts in methods he is readily able to access and process because he wants to.

C.  Long termed memory is tied to emotions.

If you are enthused by this topic, here at this point, you are probably knowledgeable of what has been written above.  If you are just reading it because it is here, you at this point in this piece, probably have little idea was what’s been said… just generalizing it into that category of your brain filed under ” Something about Education”…  You have just proved that memory is linked to emotions….  We remember what strikes us emotionally.   The stronger the emotion. The stronger the memory.  Can you remember the first time you fell in love?  Probably.  Can your remember all your junior high school teachers from about the same time?  Maybe, but it will take 24 hours. Can you remember the topic of the last sermon you heard when last in church?  Only if it was a life changing one and affected you deeply…

In the teaching lexicon, there is a term “bird in the window opportunity”  On a spring day, in a sleepy classroom,  a bird flies into the class through the open window.  After getting it out, the class is full of questions.  Those moments are when you the teacher, put aside your curriculum and milk that opportunity to get children interested in learning.  Things not taught get answered. .  How a bird can fly, How it sees, What it eats, How one can find out what kind of a bird it is, all are tools far more important than that day’s curriculum and all those answers having lifelong implications, never to be forgotten,   Forty years later a child asks his grandparent how a bird flies.  “Oh, it pushes air down with its wings which makes it rise up a little bit and when it starts to fall back down, it pushes itself up again”…  complete with arms waving. “Oh grandma, how do you know this?”  “There was one day, when I was your age, and a bird flew into our open window….”

Emotions are how we build long term memories.

D.  Rigor and creativity, though opposites, are both very important to what makes us as humans...

We need both.  Being creative and giving up the first time something goes wrong, is not a benefit to our species.  Likewise, digging holes and filling them up again just to be doing something, is also not a benefit to our species.  Both have to coexist.  Face it.  If given a choice between working hard for nothing, and not working hard for nothing, almost 100% of us would choose the latter. Likewise if working hard actually gave us something, more than not working hard, rigor would be something we would need to know…  Therefore we need a combination of rigor and of allowing creativity.   This is difficult in large classes.  The perfect balance is easier in small.

E. The greater our exposure, the greater is our learning.

This is common sense.  If we learn only one thing and repeat it over and over in rigorous excercizes,  the net result is that we learn one thing.  If we are exposed to a 1000 different things, the possibility exists that we will know upwards to 1000 new things.   Again, satisfying our penchant for finding out how things work, is one of the most effective methods of conveying learning.  Taking inner city children though a grass field in the fall, teaches far more biology at an early age, than forcing them to read pamphlets handed out in 10th grade.  Our focus needs to be upon getting our children out of the classrooms as much as possible.  The wider their experience, the more topics they know…

F. Money has very little to do with education; opportunity, everything.

The realization came from the importation of children from Africa, particularly from the former British colonies, who had only a teacher, dirt floor school room, and old books, who were more advanced at their ages than our American students of today…   No TV’s.  No electronics.  No SAT’s.  No DCAS’s.  No behavior classes.  Just a teacher, a classroom, some old books, and a soccer ball….

It was a shock to the educational world.  Everything pushed by the DOE was suddenly meaningless, or was exhibiting poorer results than just teaching….  Education does not have to be about money.  It has to be about the personal relationships that grow between a teacher and a student….

Here are the core of what work.

  • 11 to 1 student/ teacher ratio
  • Making sure student’s understand each step before jumping to the next.
  • Grouping children by their ability or test scores to streamline teaching.
  • Opening new worlds for students to explore.

These are the things that teach.  Now we need to figure out how to make them happen in the classroom…  I believe our goal should be to educate 100% of those who want to learn.  Those that don’t, need to be expunged from the system into a different area, where their interests lie.

The following model achieves all of the above.

Hire teachers to an 11 to 1 ratio in k-5, and again in 9th grade, (to assist in transition over to high school and make sure no one slips through the 9th Grade crack).   There can be multiple teachers in the same room so we do not need to go building annexes to accommodate new classrooms.  (That is the usual expectation when gets when one mentions decreasing the ratio to 11 to 1…  more expensive building)s.  But no.  It does not have to be like that…  If there are 33 students in a classroom, three teachers work as a team… One takes the top third of the class based on last years test scores; one takes the middle third, and the third teacher focuses on the bottom third of that class.  Each teacher gets to know her eleven very well, and can tell when the child is on point, or isn’t.  Each child has ample attention, and there is opportunity to discover different approaches to help children understand a concept in their own unique way. In each group, all students are at similar levels, but since all are in the same classroom, there is no stratification.  It is no different from a business meeting which breaks down into groups to do individual presentations….

The teaching profession will be more rewarding.   For one gets to teach.  I think every great teacher would love the opportunity to have just 11 students…

The initial expense would be in personnel.  The hiring of teachers.  Let’s take Warner Elementary for example.  There are 540 students.  For an 11 to one student ration, we would need 50 teachers.  Currently there are 39 teachers with 11 staff listed as instructional support.  We are looking for 50 teachers so at most, an increase of 11 teachers at that school would be needed, not counting offsetting that increase with cuts of now possibly obsolete teachers…   At $40,000 those teachers would cost $440,000 to that school…  Remember that this $440,000 is a direct investment, one to use a worn out phrase, uses people to make sure that no child is left behind…

For the state as a whole, there are 131,514 students and 8706 teachers in both charter and public schools.  For a ratio of 11 to 1 in k-5 and ninth grades, we would need an additional  1650 teachers hired… At $40,000 averaged per teacher, the rough low-ball figure comes to $66,000,000.   For that  amount, every Delaware child would have their own private tutor, almost, for 5 years in elementary and their first year in high school…  There is no better uses for $66,000,000 which can be found….  Currently there are 200o instructional support personnel and if paid at $30,000 per year, that approaches the full amount of the extra we would pay the above newly hired teachers…   If it is possible to swap 1650 teachers for 2000 instructional support personnel across the state, this could be implemented next year at no additional cost.  (it could also be paid for with raising the top rates on the top marginal tax payers as outlined here….)

If we were truly serious about providing Delaware’s children with a good education, we would not have  governor nor a Secretary of Education, primarily focused on a) increasing Standardized testing, and b) increasing the influx of Charter Schools…  Those two things do little to teach any child any thing.  They are toys for grown-up men.    Instead, as outlined here, more teachers are what will truly help every child to rise to his genetic potential.  More teachers mean no cracks for a child to slip through… providing a success rate close to 100%.  and it only costs $66 million.

This isn’t rocket science. This is easy.   At the very minimum, we should implement these standards everywhere where the low income student population has crossed over the 50% mark.  Doing it in those schools should be done this legislative session.