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Reforming Our Public Schools
Special Section on Vouchers
While critiquing vouchers, supporters of public education must also maintain a sense of urgency about reforming our public schools so that they serve all children. Following are some guidelines for discussion.

Foundations of Reform

There is no single formula for reforming public schools. What works in one school or district may not necessarily be the answer for other schools. However, Rethinking Schools believes that there are essential foundations of reform that transcend specific initiatives. These include:

  • Reform must be based on a commitment to equity and high standards for all children. It's not that our society doesn't know how to teach children well, but that we give up on too many children at too young an age. It's not that we don't have good schools, but that they are clustered in affluent communities.



  • Reform must recognize the realities of the classroom and center on the needs of children. Too many educational reforms are designed to further the careers of politicians. Soundbites too often replace meaningful dialogue. If a reform doesn't improve teaching and learning in the classroom, it is of dubious value.



  • Reform must involve a collaboration among educators, parents, and community members. Lasting reform comes from the ground up and is based on respect and collaboration among administrators, teachers, parents, and community members. Parents, in particular, must be respected as valuable partners and must be brought into the decision-making process, both on a district-wide and school level.



  • Curriculum must be geared toward learning for life. A good curriculum is based on respect for children, their innate curiosity, and their capacity to learn. Students must learn to ask questions as well as answer them, to perform well in the real world and not just on tests. Equally important, schools must build a curriculum that is multicultural, anti-racist, and pro-justice.



  • Money, well spent, matters. The quality of a public school should not be based on the happenstance of geography. It is unjust that many urban districts can only spend half as much per pupil as affluent suburban districts. Teachers, in turn, must recognize that money is a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for reform.



  • Our urban communities, not just our urban schools, are in crisis. We cannot make our schools work for all our students unless our cities work for all their residents. Joblessness, poverty, substance abuse, and sub-standard housing are undeniable factors in the problems of urban schools.


Reforms that work

Across the country, specific initiatives have been useful in various districts. While by no means a comprehensive list, following are reforms that districts and schools may want to consider:

  • Smaller class sizes. Smaller classes make sense. When there are fewer children in a classroom, a teacher can better meet the needs of individual students. A groundbreaking study in Tennessee found that smaller classes were especially beneficial to minority children and children in inner-city schools.



  • Improved teacher education.The expertise of the teacher is considered the most significant factor in student success, accounting for as much as 40% of the difference. Many districts, especially in urban areas, are forced to rely on teachers with little experience or without certification. In particular, we must increase the number of teachers of color and educate all teachers to be more culturally sensitive.



  • School-based staff collaboration and innovation. A number of models of school-based reform have been developed that encourage a community of educators with high expectations, strong ties to parents and the neighborhood, and a rigorous set of standards. Such models include the School Development Program by James Comer, the Coalition of Essential Schools founded by Ted Sizer, and "Success for All," developed by Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University.



  • Lighted Schoolhouses. In many neighborhoods, schools are the most prominent institution. They have the potential to provide services not only to students but to family members and the neighborhood. Schools are a resource, not a burden, and should be open to the community well beyond the school day.



  • Parent and community liaisons. Parents know parents best. Districts and states should provide funds to hire parent liaisons for each school. Legislatures should also guarantee all workers two days a year of paid leave in order to attend parent-teacher conferences and help out at school.



  • Living Wage campaigns. Poverty is the single most devastating reality facing our urban communities. A number of school districts and municipal bodies have mandated living wages (the goal is $7.70 an hour with benefits) for their employees. The federal minimum wage should also be raised so that workers with full-time jobs can lift their families out of poverty.