Maria Garcia, 17, works at one of Golden Gate High School's laptop computers while participating in the i-Prep model of classroom based on the Google-office model. / Terry Allen Williams/news-press.com
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Also, parental involvement really matters.
The students have changed, but classrooms haven’t.
Today’s kids are receiving education in the same format as their parents and grandparents learned decades ago.
“That’s yet another problem, because how did we teach in the 1950s?” said Charlotte County Schools Superintendent Doug Whittaker. “Kids walked in, sat down in rows, teacher stood up in front and taught. It doesn’t work today and actually it didn’t really work then.”
Yet financial situations for many school districts are so dire, that education reforms never happen because of shrinking budgets, said Paul Hill, founder of the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education.
“Most places education is getting worse because of the way people are having to make cuts,” said Hill. “But some people are doing a good job of thinking of ways to maintain the quality of students, even with less money. They’re doing it either by maintaining the curriculum, lengthening school days, raising class sizes and using computers to provide individualized instruction, especially in situations where you have fewer teachers.”
Educators across the country are moving toward Common Core Standards and individual schools are revolutionizing how they do business. But educators say systematic and radical change may be the only way to reform schools.
One major problem traditional schools have is the need to homogenize education to a one-size-fits-all model, said Lee schools Superintendent Joseph Burke.
“We have a wide delivery of learners who have a different pace and style of which they learn,” said Burke. “The ideal school system would be a system that would be able to diagnose the best learning style and the best learning environment for each student and respond to that and structure that around the needs of the student.”
Students would be clustered together based on each of their unique learning needs and teachers would have a set of skills and repertoire that would work for each specific cluster of students, he said.
The way teachers work together is another change. There would be teams of teachers working together with a group of students they would take responsibility for, Burke said.
“That way what you do is build a culture in the school that everybody believes every student can be successful,” Burke said. “It happens in some schools that are really structured to approach things that way, but I think we could be doing a lot better with that and it’s something we’re working on”
Collier schools Superintendent Kamela Patton said she would also believe a more individualized learning concept would be better for students and teachers.
A teacher standing in front of a classroom with 30 students is not the future, but a teacher guiding a student through a science course that is delivered online — that’s the future, Patton said.
“Kids are the ones that have changed and so has the world,” she said. “We have to meet them.”
Patton points to a blended education approach that is used in Miami-Dade County Public Schools at iPrep Academy. The magnet high school doesn’t have traditional classrooms, but open spaces that resemble the Google offices, with sofas, beanbag chairs, high-top tables and chairs and separate quiet spaces. Each student receives a MacBook where they conduct their lessons. Some classes are in front of a teacher, but students mostly learn on their own with guidance from teachers.
It’s a model that Patton would like to bring to Collier high schools. We have a version of that at Golden Gate High School, but we’re going to make more of a push for that, because it’s an environment where you’re engaging the student, she said.
Longer days, years
On average, the majority of American students spend 180 days in school.
Whittaker said he would prefer to see the school year extended to 210 or 220 days, similarly to schools in Europe and Asia.
“I’d increase the school day by at least a half hour, if not an hour and go to six and a half hours,” Whittaker said. “People are clamoring for improvement and better and we have the same school year we had at the end of World War II and the rest of the world has gone past us. In 1946, we had the longest school year in the world and in 2012, we have the shortest school year in the industrial, technological world.”
Currently, it’s difficult for both students and teachers to stop for a full two months of teaching over the summer, Patton said.
“I’m all for kids getting breaks, but maybe that huge two months of time should go down to four weeks or a couple of weeks here and there,” she said. “When you leave on June 6 and we don’t see you until Aug. 22, some kids may read books over the summer, but many don’t.”
Schools in New York, New Orleans and Denver are experimenting with models that combine longer school days and more individualized instruction to help students that come from poor, minority and immigrant families, Hill said.
There aren’t enough hours in the school year to adequately teach students everything they are required to know within the current school year, Whittaker said, citing a study from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that found out of the current 9,650 hours students have in schools, it would take teachers 15,500 hours to teach successfully the four core areas of math, science, English and social studies once.
“The United States is trying to teach way too much stuff in too little time and you’re not getting any depth of knowledge,” said Whittaker. “It explains why teachers are so frustrated.”
Schools take control
Schools in the United States have one of the most expensive education systems in the world, yet fall behind countries that spend less on their students.
The U.S. spends $809 billion on educating elementary and high school students or $2,000 more per student than the average for industrialized nations, but other countries like Japan and South Korea spend less per student and receive better academic performance measures, according to researchers at George Washington University.
On average, districts in Florida spends $8,741 per student — far below the national average of $10,600, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Florida ranked 44th in education spending within the country.
“If you look at the way other countries spend their money, they spend their money entirely within schools and spend it on regular teachers,” said Hill. “We have a lot of specialists, aides, special education specialists, music specialists, etc. ... Almost every kind of class is not provided by a core teacher, but specialist teacher and a lot of other administrative positions.”
Some traditional public schools are looking at charters as an example for how to effectively control their staff, budgets and curriculum, Hill said.
Chartering is controversial because it involves dealing with either nonprofits or for-profit organizations, but on the other side, charters give the leaders within a school as much leverage as possible to improve, Hill said.
So some school districts are simply removing the third party organizations and businesses that run charters from the equation, he said.
“The advantage of chartering is the amount of control people have over budgets and staffing,” said Hill. “A lot of districts are moving that way, like in New York City, with directly run schools. ... They simulate chartering and that’s a good idea.”
One thing that would also improve the current education system is reforming collegiate undergraduate teaching schools.
“Somehow we have to break out of the mode of having ... career college professors (who) are teaching teachers how to teach in public school classrooms when they have never done it themselves,” said Whittaker. “It’s an insane model.”
Under the current system, Whittaker said it’s not unusual for student-teachers to walk out of their internships or first-year positions, saying they’ll never go back to education again or that they wish someone would have prepared them for the experience.
“The University of South Florida does a drop-dead great job of preparing teachers and Florida Gulf Coast University does a very good job,” said Whittaker. “But we get teachers from other preparation institutes and, oh my, we literally have to retrain them, especially secondary teachers.”
The major problem is that education professors are often teaching their students the same content that they did decades ago instead of teaching differentiated or individualized instruction, he said, adding that another problem is that college professors don’t understand today’s kids.
“Now even they are struggling with their college kids, who are sitting in their rooms and going, ‘oh my gosh, boring!’” Whittaker said. “Whereas we sat dutifully taking notes and we may have gone out and complained about the way a professor talked, kids today are sitting in class and texting their parents, ‘this is killing me.’”
Connect with this reporter: Ashley A. Smith @AshASmithNews (Twitter)