The Education Debate We’re Not Having

While we argue about issues like federal intrusion and Common Core, not enough attention is being paid to steps that could bring real improvement to our schools.
December 4, 2014
By Joe Semsar  |  Contributor
Joe Semsar, a former Teach for America corps member and staff member, is an organization-transformation consultant in Deloitte's federal government human capital practice.

Last June I attended a debate between the Republican candidates for South Carolina superintendent of education. The two-hour debate featured six candidates vying to lead the state's public education system for the next four years. While the candidates addressed a multitude of scripted and audience-initiated questions, the bulk of those questions centered around the federal government's encroachment on state and local education and the future of the polarizing Common Core standards.

As a former teacher, I was dismayed at the narrowness of the debate and left wondering what had been discussed that would directly lead to an improved K-12 educational environment. My time as a teacher made clear to me that state standards alone will not lead to students' mastery of their material.

Like many young teachers fresh out of college, I got my start as a classroom instructor in a school that had perennially failed. After the Recovery School District of Louisiana seized control of the school and handed it over to a charter management organization, that organization built a new staff, extended the school day to nine hours and adopted a new pedagogical approach grounded in diagnostic assessments and individualized academic tracking.

None of those steps resulted in significant academic gains. So what can state and local governments realistically do to improve educational outcomes? There are many truly effective steps that can be taken, but here are two, gleaned from my experience, that could make a difference quickly at little cost.

First, state and local governments must work diligently to empower teachers with the resources needed to succeed -- lesson plans and supplemental resources aligned to each state's grade-level expectations that can be easily tailored and deployed. The inadequate supply of teachers and the rise of teachers certified through non-traditional alternative-certification programs create a situation in which multitudes of educators find themselves floundering to consistently produce engaging lessons. As a first-year teacher, I was responsible for developing lesson plans for five subjects a day for 36 students; that's nearly 900 lesson plans over the course of a school year, not to mention the differentiation that must be factored in when creating lesson plans for students on different academic levels.

I understand the "every classroom is different" argument, but let's be honest: No matter how talented or committed one might be, the development and delivery of 900 lesson plans over the course of a school year is simply too big of an ask. A few successful charter management organizations -- such as KIPP schools -- create online resource repositories for their teachers that provide instant access to engaging lesson plans, classwork and homework that foster educational environments conducive to learning. Why can't our states and localities replicate this model on a larger scale?

Second, in many low-income communities classroom management -- dealing with bad behavior -- is the elephant in the room that no one wants to address. More-engaging lessons reduce in-classroom misconduct, but many disenfranchised students suffer because they have fallen behind and need more than engaging instruction. The schools that consistently outperform their academic expectations leverage positive-behavior incentive systems and school-wide consequence systems to curb bad behavior and encourage positive behavior. Celebrating positive behavior reinforces expectations that lead to an improved communal ethos within schools.

There is much that government leaders and education administrators can learn from those who have led school systems and individual schools to outperform expectations. From a more collaborative educational environment that encourages teachers to share resources to the proliferation of behavior systems that have proved successful, governments need to hone in on the core problems and work to address them while leaving partisan, polarizing issues on the sidelines.