Sing a Song, Save a School (and Students)

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett would admit he has more in common with his namesake who is the new basketball coach at Virginia (Washington State through the 2008–2009 season) than the 82-year-old crooner who is among the most admired entertainers of our time.

After all, Indiana’s Tony B. served the dual role of principal and basketball coach while at Scottsburg High School. But now education is his full-time game and he’s stirring things up with these radical notions of improving schools and ultimately the futures of our young people.

Nevertheless, the Fordham Institute, in its weekly Education Gadfly newsletter, put together an entertaining collection of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" Tony Bennett songs to go with education proposals from Bennett that it fully endorses.

Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett is crooning an aggressive school reform tune these days. Alas, he may not have the much-loved silken voice and silver hair of our favorite "King of Broken Hearts," but he certainly has plans to take Indiana schools and students from the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" to the "Good Life." For starters, he wants to transition to value-added student assessment, something that’s sure making us "Smile." Bennett explains: "If a child enters fifth grade and is reading at second-grade level and that fifth-grade teacher gets that child to read at fourth-grade level, I don’t think it’s fair to call anyone a failure." He hopes to turn districts from "Rags to Riches" with his plans to update the teacher seniority system and end the practice of last hired-first fired; when district leaders wonder "Who Can I Turn To?" [sic], the answer will be talented, not tenured, teachers. He also wants to enforce 180 full-day instructional time requirements, which means no more shortening school days "Time after Time" for teacher conferences and professional development. Plus, he’s a fan of charters and improving the teacher preparation programs at his state’s universities. Props to Bennett; we need strong leaders who aren’t afraid to say no to "Anything Goes." In fact, he might be "Just in Time."

Bennett outlines his recent thoughts in a Lafayette Journal & Courier story; earlier this year, just prior to taking office, he participated in a Q&A with Chamber members (captured here in BizVoice magazine).

Coaches Instead of Teachers?

The Education Gadfly, a weekly offering from the Fordham Institute, provides some of the most interesting perspectives on education issues. A current commentary by Michael Petrilli is titled: What to do about mediocre teachers?

The proposal to recruit teachers from the top third of their college classes simply isn’t practical, Petrilli writes. He does offer two alternatives (bear with the four-paragraph length; the thoughts are intriguing):

"I don’t have any surefire answers, but I see two possible solutions. First, provide tools to make these teachers more effective. And second: replace these teachers with something else entirely.

What tools might make a difference? More than anything, mediocre teachers need a solid curriculum. This is hardly a revolutionary idea, and yet it’s striking how little attention curricular frameworks, standards, scopes-and-sequences and materials receive. How can we expect so-so teachers — especially rookies — to make their instruction engaging if we ask each one to invent the instructional wheel themselves?

Beyond giving teachers better tools, the other option is to replace teachers entirely. This isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. The healthcare system figured out long ago that it didn’t need MD’s doing every annual physical or treating every patient with the flu. It developed "nurse practitioners" and "physicians’ assistants" — individuals with plenty of training to provide basic care at a much lower salary. We should consider that model, too.

Think about poor, remote rural communities. While they struggle to attract top-notch teachers to their schools, they are full of caring adults who love kids and need jobs. But lots of these adults don’t have college degrees. Maybe that’s not a problem. What if every classroom had a "coach," instead of a "teacher," a person charged with keeping students on task, looking after their social and emotional needs, and providing instruction in hands-on subjects like art, music, and gym? But core academics get provided via the Internet."

Read the full Petrilli argument.