K12 Education in America

I worry about K12 public education for a living. At present I work for one of the many Washington, DC non-profits, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). My work focuses on technology and the internet, but my interests are much wider than that. For example, I've been thinking about the ways in which schools are an artificial environment, isolated from society at large.

Education FAQ and Strictly Opinionated Answers

How can I select a good school for my child?

Selecting a good school takes work. First, you can look at statistics such as standardized test scores and dropout rates. Be aware that these statistics will only give you general information, and may be misleading. For example, if a school has two primary populations, one of which is lots of kids who are already at-risk, and the other of which are normally high achievers then the actual test scores may fit a bicameral curve. You're unlikely to know that, though, from the single number that's reported. Also, bear in mind that test scores reflect a combination of two things: the quality of teaching, and the composition of the student body. The highest test scores will be found where not only are there good teachers, but good (intelligent, motivated) students.

You'll definitely want to visit the school and interview the principal. THe principal sets the tone for all education in the school. If the principal believes in discipline, encourages teachers to continue their own educations as well as to be innovative in the classroom, and espouses general beliefs in education that you subscribe to, then you are likely to be pleased with the results for your child. You'll also want to meet the teachers who will be teaching your child, and spend a few hours in those teachers' classes to see if you like those teachers' style. If the school doesn't permit on-site visits by parents, think seriously about choosing a different school.

What factors are the greatest influence in creating a good school?

glindahl@panix.com, a participant in the newsgroup misc.education, said "The success or failure of a public school, in my experience, depends on only two factors: the effectiveness of the school principal as a leader and motivator; and the economic fitness of the local community." I tend to agree with this statement. All other factors pale by comparison.

My child is having trouble in school and I think his/her teacher could be doing a lot more to help. What can I do?

First off, go in assuming that there's a good reason that the teacher hasn't been on the ball with your child. Perhaps there are too many children in the class, or the teacher has trouble at home that's affecting job performance, or perhaps your child isn't a problem compared to other kids in the class. Or perhaps the teacher has been on the ball, but you aren't aware yet of what the teacher is doing. Remembering that these things are a possibility will help get you in a cooperative frame of mind. Having a good, cooperative relationship with your child's teacher is essential for solving problems. If, after meeting with the teacher, you don't think that the cooperation is two-way, THEN you can start to get aggressive!

The first step is to talk to the teacher. Most people who become teachers do so because they find it rewarding to help children learn. Your child's teacher is probably more than willing to help. You and the teacher need to be teamates with the common goal of helping your child learn.

When speaking with the teacher, ask the teacher what he or she thinks may be causing the learning problem. Does the teacher's suggestion make any sense? Can you offer information to clarify the nature of the problem, or to suggest that the teacher's information is incomplete?

Once both you and the teacher agree on the problem (which often takes just a few minutes) then you can spend some time working on solutions. Perhaps you need to help your child with certain kinds of extra homework. Perhaps the teacher needs to move your child's desk to another part of the classroom. Remember, when speaking with the teacher, that although you know your child better than anyone else does, the teacher knows an awful lot about children of your child's age. You can both learn from each other.

If you think the teacher isn't willing to help, which does happen occasionally, then your next step is to speak with the principal. At that point you'll need either to work with the principal to improve the teacher's attitude and/or skills, or else pull your child out of that class and into another one.

If the principal isn't willing to help (which happens occasionally) then write a careful letter about the situation and send it to the teacher, the principal, the district superintendent, and the school board. (In the case of a private school, send it to the trustees.)

Fortunately, most teachers are, in fact, both willing and able to help you and your child. If you disagree with the solution the teacher suggests, you might try it anyway; solving educational problems is what teachers do for a living, and most of them are pretty good at it, given a chance. If the solution fails after giving it a fair try (say, of a week or two) then there probably hasn't been much harm done, and you can try something else.

What can I do to help my child learn to read?

For most children, being read to, learning phonics, and then practicing reading, will be sufficient to teach them to read. Here's why reading to your child helps your child learn to read. There's a wonderful web page, sponsored by the US Department of Education, that gives more detailed tips for parents interested in Helping Your Child Learn to Read.

What can I read to learn about education reform?

An excellent history of education reform is a book by David Tyack and Larry Cuban called Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. It discusses institutional trends in the schools, philosophical trends in reform movements, changes in society, and how the three interact to impac the public education system. The book is firmly grounded in primary sources of opinion and data, and includes excellent endnotes. It is of interest not only to the historian, but to the modern reformer who wishes to review his or her own thoughts in the broader context. The book was published by the Harvard University Press in 1995. It's ISBN number is 0-674-89282-8.

Where can I find out about the state of American education?

The United States Department of Education collects a variety of data on students every couple of years and, processing it by approved statistical methods, comes out with the National Assessment of Education Progress. This volume, affectionately known as the NAEP, is the source for many, many of the statistics and news articles you may have seen. Copies are available from the US Government Printing Office, I think.

What does the Department of Education do, anyway?

The United States Department of Education runs quite a number of programs. It is not a national school board. The USED cannot set graduation requirements, school calendards, hiring policies, or anything like that. The state deparments of education set some of that for their own states, but most of the details are controlled at the local level. If you care about your local schools, vote for your local board of education!

But what does the USED do? It runs a few student loan programs for colleges. It tracks the nation's educational progress. (See the preceding question for some details.) It has money available for grants for schools that wish to apply for it, and for research organizations. It has money to give to schools with lots of very poor students in order to help ensure that those students get a chance at a decent education. (Schools with poor students would otherwise be even more underfunded than they are. Most money for schools comes from property taxes, after all, so poor students tend to live in poor districts with less property tax income ... need I say more?) The USED runs the Blue Ribbon School program, which recognizes excellent schools, public and private, around the country. It funds the regional education labs, which do research and disseminate best practices. Under Goals2000, the USED gives money to states which opt to create high standards for education. And the USED runs many more programs, with which I am less familiar. The USED contributes only about 6% of the national K12 education budget (the rest coming from state and local budgets) but it targets its programs carefully. One of the useful things the USED does is publish a series of books that are designed to help parents help their children succeed in school. These Parenting Publications, divided by subject area, are available on the web. So are a number of other USED Publications.

Favorite Education Web Sites