The First Step

If you had the power to make one change in public education right now, what would it be? I’m not talking about some sort of magic wand fantasy, so suggestions like “End Poverty” are not appropriate. What I am looking for are changes that could be made.

When Michele Norris of NPR asked that question this week, it got me thinking, and I hope it will stimulate your thinking as well. I left the panel discussion, posted the question on Twitter, asked a few friends, gathered my own thoughts, and then put together this short piece.

The panel that Michele was moderating was titled ‘How All Children Succeed.’ It was organized by TurnAround and JPMorgan/Chase and featured Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed,” TurnAround CEO Pamela Cantor, Scott Palmer of Education Counsel, and KIPP co-founder Dave Levin.

Dave Levin had the simplest — and perhaps the most profound — suggestion. “Change the sign,” he said. He reminded us that virtually every school has signs trumpeting a familiar slogan, “All Children Can Learn.” That should come down, Dave said, and be replaced by signs reading “All Will Learn.” Not ‘can’ but ‘will,’ reflecting a new determination and responsibility. And ‘all’ means ‘all,’ he said, including the adults! Changing the sign was, for Dave, an important first step toward changing the way adults in schools approach their jobs.

My change is similar to Dave’s. I would have adults change their fundamental question. Stop asking “How intelligent are you?” and ask instead, “How are you intelligent?” Changing that mindset would (could) lead to vastly different schools. School could become places where children are encouraged to find and follow their passion. An end to ‘one size fits all’ education.

Paul Tough was one of the panelists on NPR's discussion that helped inspire this post.

Along that line another necessary change — the importance of connecting — emerged in the discussion. Kids growing up in low income environments face stresses that well-off children can’t begin to imagine, and we know that children who are severely stressed simply cannot focus on learning. We also know that all children need the love and support of some adults. “It doesn’t have to be the parent,” Pam Cantor said, “But it has to come from someone.” I was reminded of E.M. Forster’s cry from the heart, “Only Connect.”

For her ‘one change right now,’ Pam Cantor suggested that all teachers reach out to parents with positive comments. That resonated with me because I saw my daughter Elise doing it a dozen or more years ago when she was teaching in a middle school in Harlem. Nearly all of her kids were Hispanic, and she made a point of calling their parents early in the year and praising their children — in fluent Spanish — for something they had done in class. With a few kids, she admitted, it was a stretch to find something worth cheering about, but she felt that it was absolutely critical that the parents’ first contact with their child’s teacher be a positive one. That’s also what Pam stressed. She pointed out that school was rarely a positive experience, suggesting that schools failed them, not the other way around. “We need to break that pattern, teacher by teacher.”

Paul Tough encouraged home visits by teachers when kids are older but recommended earlier connections (I noticed that he didn’t say ‘interventions’) of the type done by Ounce of Prevention in Chicago. The earlier the better, he seemed to be saying, a view echoed by Scott Palmer. That’s not ‘government meddling’ but help that most families are hungry for. Dave Levin echoed that: “We can’t let a vocal minority scare us away from helping the majority, when we know they want help.”

One Twitter follower focused on teaching: “Ease 1st year teachers into the classroom with reduced teaching load combined with support, prof development, peer observations.”

Another didn’t need anywhere near her 140 characters: “End High Stakes Testing!” was all she wrote. Aristotle, who wrote “We are what we repeatedly do,” might well agree.

Paul Tough spoke thoughtfully about the challenge of helping children learn to manage adversity and failure. Too often, he said, well-off parents want to keep their kids from ever falling down, even though it is only by falling down that one learns to get up and try again. Conversely, poor kids have so much adversity in their lives that what they need is more protection, more encouragement. (You ought to read his book, if you haven’t done so).

The conversation naturally expanded to cover other ways schools could be changed so that all children can succeed. On one significant point there was complete agreement: this country needs to make a long-term commitment to children, meaning a serious effort to help parents of infants and toddlers. “We need to make a 20-year commitment,” Dave Levin said.

One prominent American couple actually has the power to make one change that would reshape public education. I am referring to Edy and Eli Broad. Earlier this week I attended the annual Broad Prize festivities honoring the nation’s most outstanding urban school system. After being a runner-up for four years, Miami-Dade finally won, based on its remarkable accomplishments in raising achievement scores among Latino and Black students. That’s certainly notable, of course. But suppose that the Mr. and Mrs. Broad decided to emphasize — big time — two additional criteria: the vibrancy of the arts programs and the effectiveness of the social/emotional programs? Suppose school systems, eager to win the national acclaim and the $1,000,000 in college scholarship money, knew that they had to get serious about attending to the needs of the whole child if they wanted the judges to view them as contenders for the Broad Prize? Suppose systems knew that, if they weren’t providing opportunities in the arts, the judges would turn their backs?

You know darn well what would happen: The arts would come back to life. Counseling, mentoring and supporting would be center-stage, where they belong. And schools would be happier places for young people.

So here’s the burning question: If you could make one change right now, what would it be? Perhaps if enough of us put forth ideas, we may end up with a workable list of 10 or 20 changes that could be made now. Then we’d be on to something.

I look forward to your responses.

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38 thoughts on “The First Step

  1. Just reduce class size. All the Heritage Foundation and Hoover Institute pundits who tried to convince us that it isn’t worth it were simply misleading everyone in their quest to weaken teacher unions and lower government spending. The peer reviewed secondary literature continues to confirm the benefits of simply giving teachers more time per student by limiting the number of kids in a class.


    • Keep in mind that Maria Montessori had 72 diagnosed “idiots” (in the language of 1890) and managed to individualize by organizing. Class size is important, but not enough to be a critical innovation, unless, of course, people don’t “organize.”


    • Clearly, class size positively impacts achievement, but the more important question is whether its effects are greater than those of other strategies and cost-effective. If you calculate the costs of decreasing class size and compare the effect to cheaper, more effective strategies, you’ll find that the talk about class size is misplaced. It would be far more effective to actually change the curriculum and pedagogy teachers use in fundamental ways (many such changes are more effective and cheaper than merely decreasing class size). See the Appendix B of the book “Visible Learning” by John Hattie for more here –


  2. One change: Form a local Education Community consisting of motivated citizens willing to identify, understand local issues and work to develop and initiate better alternatives to address them.


  3. Seth Godin’s talk at TEDx last month in Brooklyn is probably the simplest, most comprehensive, and embracing frame for change (, and it merits attention as a unifying vision of change that’s already happening, and is usually ignored by schools, colleges, innovative or even radical. Ironically, once adopted, Godin’s “vision” need change very little about curriculum, instruction, teachers, students, and schools, since it converts what they do into a laboratory resource rather than a “body of knowledge” and “common core.” And Godin builds the case against testing better than anyone I’ve heard – including here – by pointing to how we have all learned to “look it up.” Measuring a system on criteria of data recall is using a metric of around 1915, and a technology of 1930.

    His point is that there are so many external changes already that an education model based on industrialization is as useful as the factory on which it’s modeled: and many of those same factories have become R&D, housing, or open space for new inventions. It is how we THINK about that resource that is new, not the resource itself. And, if and when we don’t THINK about that resource, it’s not a resource at all. Ironically it reminds me of my experience as a college summer employee at IBM nearly 50 years ago, where THINK was posted all over the place. That was, after all, the turnaround from the industrial model we still use in schools….


    • Seth Godin’s talk is wonderful. Thank you for calling my attention to it. “Connecting Dots instead of Collecting Dots” says so much, and his fundamental question, “What is school for?”is the heart of the matter.


      • One caveat about the ‘we can look it up’ approach. Education is, in one respect, about “Building a Self,” and that’s important because at the end of the day, that’s what you have to fall back on, to live with, and to keep you company. If you don’t have something stored in that brain of yours that is of value, what then? In the dark night of the soul, when it’s always 3 O’Clock in the morning, it’s helpful to have Shakespeare, Keats, Bach and Dave Brubeck (and maybe Roy Orbison) with you.

        They might not be there if you go to school only looking things up…


  4. Create more down time inside the school day for students to think and do independent study work. Mental “breathing room” would allow students to stretch, think more creatively, and challenge conventional wisdom. As educators we are draining the lifeblood out of our students with our compulsion to protect students from themselves by scheduling every minute of every day, We need to let them grow up, take intellectual risk and be genuinely heard by giving them the gift of free time.


  5. The change that could have the biggest effect is increasing the knowledge of parents about learning and education. Even if just a few select concepts were “known” by a greater percentage of America’s 68 million parents with children under 18, that could make a big difference in kids’ school achievement. But how to do that since parents are busy as heck.

    If working with parents isn’t an option, I’d go for LESS frequent standardized testing. Though these tests are helpful for policy thinkers and public school administrators, they are not so good for kids’ learning. It fact this kind of testing goes in the opposite direction of research findings in the science of learning.


  6. The most damaging practice that I see in schools today is not the use of high stakes assessment and accountability, without which it is very challenging to safeguard the civil rights of underserved minorities within any state. Differential outcomes across subgroups of students cannot be ignored when demonstrated on objective, well-developed, valid assessments that assess curriculum standards. No, the most damaging practice in schools is the foregoing of instruction for several weeks, even months, in order to “prepare” students for high stakes tests. Teachers and administrators do not understand the testing effect in cognitive psychology and how testing can be used to improve long term growth and development of knowledge. Doing away with assessment is not the answer. Ending the practice of avoiding instruction to prepare for test taking coupled with continuing to engage in instruction after high stakes testing has been completed would significantly increase the amount of time spent learning in most classrooms. There is hardly a more powerful intervention in education than time on task. Let’s increase the time spent learning the curriculum and decrease the time spent practicing to take tests.


    • I like this. How about getting school boards and administrators to commit to one week of project-based work for every DAY of test prep????


  7. Is your first sentence for me? Because, as we know, poverty is the problem, but if we admit that, you have no job.

    Sure, dance around the issue and use big words and your big brains to figure out ways to help kids that are complex so you feel complicated and smart.

    It’s still poverty that’s the problem.


  8. Effective education for all students is the solution to the problem of poverty. But the challenge of making education effective for all students does not rest entirely with schools, teachers, administrators and politicians. Effective education and embracing education as a solution requires a commitment on the part of every citizen. Everyone has to ask what they can do to improve the system and get students to recognize the individual, personal power that can come to them through becoming educated.


    • Poverty is not going away… As educators we must determine how we can move all students ahead. I don’t think there is a ‘quick fix” and I seriously doubt that the implementation of Common Core Standards is going to drive a dramatic shift in improving the learning of student’s growing up in poverty.
      We have to start looking at building a community of learners that not only takes into account all the children walking through our front door but we must also build in opportunities to share their knowledge in diverse ways. Differentiate all levels of learning and allow the child to show what they learned by developing projects and hands-on activities. All students will learn but teachers need to permit them to show what they can do!
      Also, build relationships with your students and their families. Allow them to see that you value their children’s input. Sometimes sharing positives with families, and the larger community, builds student’s confidence and self-esteem. Let’s face it, all of us try harder when we see/hear positive results. Why should this be different for student learning?


  9. Make public employee unions & collective bargaining illegal. Make schools accountable to the parents & teachers, not the administrators.


    • Peter, I assume you have some examples to back up that idea, right? After all, there are more than a few states and nations that don’t have collective bargaining or union protections, and there are of course others that do. So, there’s no need for you to hypothesize or speculate: who’s doing better? I have a feeling you won’t like the answer.


  10. Understand and abide by the philosophy that says WE HAVE TO MAKE KIDS WANT TO READ BEFORE WE CAN MAKE THEM READ WHAT WE WANT THEM TO. And…never force a student to read aloud in front of his peers.


  11. I would reorganize elementary schools into a PreK-3 school and an adjacent school for grades 4-8. The mission of teaching children in a way the reflects their social, emotional, and intellectual development would be better served with this grouping. In addition, the crucial benchmarks for literacy and numeracy would coincide with graduation from a phase of education.

    With the younger children, the whole team would work together to ensure every child could read for comprehension, tell a story through writing, reason numerically, and be familiar with patterns and geometric shapes. They would be able to work interdependently with other children and resolve minor conflicts. In addition, they would show independence in managing their own resources for school and have personalized strategies to start solving a problem while waiting for assistance.

    A new intermediate school defined as Grades 4-8 would bookend the experience of puberty with intellectual development around


    • (Oops! Comment posted mysteriously before finished) Anyway…Creating a safe harbor for kids in puberty that avoids the disruptive grade six transition and still clusters the kids with alignment for intellectual development.

      Schools need to be adjacent to allow for important mentoring and connectedness across age groups. In addition, facilities could be shared, such as library, cafeteria, PE, and playground.


  12. Education is about culture. In our culture we tell our children they have nothing to do with with their learning. Conservatives say if we made education part of free enterprise children will learn
    Liberals natural constituency are the African American and Latino so they say bad teaching causes children not to do there work. Teachers unions say more money and smaller classes will make children do their work
    An example of a culture change would have say 3 of the best athletes in the world argue over who is number two in the world and a rookie comes into the room and states shouldn’t you be taking about number one. They look at him incredulously and point to a teacher as number one


  13. 3-5 schools per district, the Bureaucracy kills fun, creativity and budgets. There is no economy of scale in large districts. I worked in Tamalpais union high school district, 3 high schools, it was great, San Diego City schools, 20,000 employees, it was a mess. Bigger is not better.


  14. The one thing I would do …I would do even if I had 10 things I could do and that is “individualize the instruction around each students needs and aspirations.” In most of our schools we organize teaching around age…not around student needs. We need to design learning around the world in which students live…not the world adults live. When we start with individualization we back into all kinds of redesign. I don’t know what Ms/r. Smith’s 4th grade is anymore other than the kids are 9 years old. Some do not speak English others are reading at the 6th grade level and others at the 2nd grade. Only one curriculum is used. As hard as teachers try to address each student…they just can’t. Schooling needs to be organized around individual students. That means schooling models need to change…be redesigned. Those that are doing that are blowing the roof off of learning.


  15. The one thing –
    I would require an iep for each child. Not necessarily like the ieps in special ed, but a an educational plan for each child. Furthermore, each child would take ownership and be a part of the plan.

    If I got a second chance, require that any test that is given, have a purpose and then apply the results to the purpose.

    And if I had a third-
    Require different kinds of staff development days. Instead of staff development days, they are student, class, school, district review days. How are our kids doing, what needs to be done to improve.

    We know what works, what stops implementation? Change institutional mindsets. Refocus the bureaucracy

    More than one, but there is no one solution, one size fits all, unless it is to change the way people think about education


  16. Convince 95% of the people working in public schools, and those preparing people to work in public schools, that public schools can have a huge positive impact on students’ skills, knowledge and belief that they can and should help improve the world. This is not to say that schools can overcome all problems of poverty, crime, racism, hunger and homeless. It is to say that schools can have a massive positive impact.


  17. The one change would be to end compulsory schooling. The sign in front of schools should be changed to “All children will learn what we tell them to learn – and we have ways of making them learn.” All students do learn the implicit lessons, I assure you. John, your noble approach of “How are you intelligent” only applies to students who have been to subject to compulsory schooling where their confidence has been undermined. Self-directed learners don’t require that kind of affirmation.


  18. Create a new school assignment policy where all low-income students/students from low-income areas are assigned to schools in the high-income areas and all students in the high-income areas are assigned to schools in the low-income areas (essentially switching the student populations of each school). I think then we’d see how quickly school reform can happen in “underperforming” schools.


  19. Language is key to literacy comprehension and leads to a desire to learn through reading; accomodations for low performing readers must be put into place in all classes, not just the reading and language art classrooms. Enough is not being done to meet the needs of the whole child when Exceptional Student programs in our nation are constantly the first cuts in budget management. Of significant importance is including higher learning programs in all schools. Currently to obtain higher learning exposure you have to participate in a lottery system to get into the Magnet schools or you have to already perform at a higher level. I propose bringing the higher learning opportunities to the lower performing schools will enhance children’s desire to learn. The magnet schools and charter schools already focus on student directed focused learning, i.e. Art Magnets, Music Magnets, Language/Literacy Magnets, etc. I agree instilling a love of reading from birth is necessary for instilling a desire to learn the rest of your life…you cannot have success in the educational forum without successful readers!


  20. I would give every child a birth an iPod with hundreds of story’s that represent both classic and current literature appropriate for the first 10 years of learning. Hearing a story is one of human kinds first literary instinct and still the first step in doing the hard work to learn to read. I would also love every child to have a walk in a green space every week. Are kids just don’t have enough of a connection to our natural world.


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