Education Matters: Improving public education


The Opinion section and the online edition of the June 15 San Diego Union-Tribune featured readers’ suggestions for improving public education. The best were these:

College is not the only path to success and is not realistic for all students. Educators need to legitimize “educational pathways that do not lead to a four-year college degree.” Students should not be treated as failures if they seek other career avenues after high school.

More educators are needed who would see “beyond the impersonal, bureaucratic, overly structured, factory-like schools that are so prevalent today.” Less regimentation and a more innovative education would make learning enjoyable.

Too much focus on test scores means not enough on real-life projects and how to make science and math relevant.

 Provide more mental health resources for social and emotional well-being.

 Classroom learning should include more civics, foreign language, music.

Pay good teachers more. Tenure is bad.

 Smaller class sizes and more community volunteers in the classroom would help.

Having covered local education issues for the past 20 years, I have additional suggestions based on my experience and observations – which doesn’t make them any more valid than ideas proposed by others with their own experiences and observations.

1. Eliminate poverty.

If we’re talking about improving public education as a whole, it’s imperative to address the inherent imbalance between rich and poor. Rich school districts have rich parents who offer enriching opportunities for their kids. That creates a two-tiered system of education that denies lower socio-economic communities the same opportunities.

Foundations in wealthy school districts exacerbate the problem, by providing a tax-deductible option for charitable donations.

This gets to the heart of what’s wrong with public education: poverty. Solve poverty and the problems that exist in public education disappear. Education alone cannot level the playing field.

2. Okay, so that’s not going to happen. Then how about free preschool for all? At least that gives kids from low-income families a chance to start on a (semi) equal footing with kids from wealthier families who have been attending preschool since they were 2.

3. Eliminate AP classes. I know this will upset helicopter parents who ask how their children will possibly get into Harvard without AP classes to boost their GPAs.

AP classes hyper-inflate actual ability and teach kids to memorize answers rather than use creative strategies to think through problems that challenge them and ultimately expand intellectual curiosity. Learning that there is more than one solution to problems invites investigation, exploration and determination.

AP teachers must teach to the tests, with the goal to maximize the number of students who pass AP exams. And College Board which administers AP tests reaps in tons of money by convincing educators, students and parents that AP is vital to success.

School district administrators love to boast that XXX number of their pupils passed AP exams, and that in turn gets the districts higher ratings on national high school rankings.

Just give it up. Other school districts have. Those students don’t suffer when they apply to college, because the colleges are informed that no AP classes are offered. So no penalty is given for having “just” a 4.0 GPA. The added bonus is less anxiety for over-stressed students.

4. Eliminate high school sports. Have I lost everyone by now?

Administrators spend time and money on athletic issues all out of proportion to what should be spent on classroom learning and student support services. In Europe, high school athletes participate in sports through clubs after school, leaving school for its intended purpose: learning.

A perfect example of the way high school athletics has so corrupted the high school experience is the college admissions scandal, which used false qualifications for many students to gain entrance to (mostly) elite colleges.

A friend whose son with a 4.4 GPA who was denied admission to an elite college years ago said cynically that she should have hired a soccer coach rather than a physics tutor, given that another star-athlete student was admitted to the same college with a far lower GPA.

Let students play their sports but through after school clubs rather than high school teams. Let’s give non-athlete students who work hard academically an equal chance.

5. Bring back music. Music education should be mandatory starting in elementary school. Not only has music education been shown to improve math skills and have a positive effect on brain development, but it can be used effectively to teach other subjects that traditionally put kids to sleep.

I call it the “Hamilton” effect. The musical about Alexander Hamilton engaged kids and taught them more about our country’s history than any dry textbook ever could.

6. Project-based learning is vital education for future graduates. Kids need (and want) to know why math and science are relevant, why teamwork and collaboration are essential skills to learn, and how learning can be made fun.

Give teachers more room to teach creatively, and give them flexibility to adjust schedules as needed. Teaching to the tests promotes nothing more than memorization, as opposed to lessons that teach kids how to think.

7. Make use of graphic novels, comics, video games and live action role playing (LARP).

Using these kinds of creative learning tools increases interest in history – and in civics. Students today know far too little about the foundations of our democracy. Civics instruction has been neglected, in favor of subjects covered by standardized tests, to the detriment of our democratic future.

Comic books (we’re not talking about Archie or Superman) and graphic novels designed for educational purposes can be effective tools to engage children and make subjects like history, English, science and even math more relevant.

LARPs allow kids to become characters and live the part. And specially designed video games can provide a way for kids to think about solving world problems like hunger, food distribution, climate change, industrialization, pollution and other international challenges.

8. Embrace good charter schools and immediately shut down bad ones. The bad ones are tarnishing the reputation of the many charters that successfully address the academic and social needs of students.

9. Bullying continues to destroy young lives, even if it doesn’t lead to suicide. Teasing and bullying are not “character-building.” More emphasis is needed on teaching to the whole child – meaning stronger focus on social and emotional learning.

10. And the big one – teachers’ unions. There was – and is – a legitimate place for unions in our society. However, have teachers’ unions overstepped?

Problem areas include the inability to fire bad teachers, the lack of merit pay to reward good teachers, tenure and seniority rights, and the rigidity of salary schedules that reduces teachers to numbers based on years served rather than ability or the high-level subject matter they may be teaching.

Fantasy finance

Almost all these ideas involve funding, which most districts say is in short supply. There are ways to save boatloads of money. But alas, few are viable, given the propensity of school board members and administrators to retain power and influence.

Even as the gargantuan San Diego Unified School District should be broken up into smaller districts, other districts should be combined. This would save money by eliminating salaries for duplicate superintendents and other upper management personnel.

There are far too many tiny districts in east county with few numbers of students, many of which could be united and overseen by one or two superintendents.

Locally, the Del Mar and Solana Beach school districts serve virtually the same populations of students. Both are K-6 configurations, both represent similar demographics, and both feed into the San Dieguito Union High School District. Combine them.

Likewise, Cardiff, with its two small schools, should be absorbed by the Encinitas school district.

Eliminating duplicate superintendent and upper management salaries would save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, freeing up funds to support student needs.

To benefit students, all five San Dieguito middle schools should add grade 6 to its 7-8 grade configuration. Two grades in middle school makes no sense and is an uncommon configuration across the state.

Making even more economic sense would be for San Dieguito to become a K-12 district, thus eliminating four feeder districts, saving administrator salary money, and providing a centralized curriculum for continuity for all San Dieguito students beginning in kindergarten.

Rancho Santa Fe, the fifth feeder district, would be loath to give up its independence. But as the only feeder district that serves students in grades K-8, RSF has a grade configuration that makes sense.

There are ways to save money and use those funds to implement new and exciting strategies for improving public education. But it requires radical thinking and people in power to willfully give up their positions for the greater good.

Fantasy finance indeed.

—Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at