By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
My wife would NOT stop talking Monday night.
She’d just returned from Marvell, a Delta farming community where she was writing a story for an education magazine I publish. The elementary school has an all-day summer program for students in danger of falling behind, which, in a school where 97 percent receive free and reduced price lunches, is a lot of them.
She wanted to tell us about all she’d seen. Enthusiastic teachers and college interns were going to war alongside these kids to fight for their futures. A teacher gave a student a high-five after he correctly identified the preposition and object of the preposition in a sentence. Kids were reading because they wanted to. The youngest students were being tutored – by third graders, who seemed to know what they were doing.
The program clearly is improving student performance and test scores. Under the leadership of its stick-of-dynamite principal, Sylvia Moore, the school had gone from occupying a permanent place on the state’s school improvement list to scoring an “A” on the state’s report card.
My wife saw a lot of smiles and laughter during her marvelous day in Marvell. Her heart melted when a kindergarten student told her she loved her. She laughed as she recounted the young male students’ antics. If she’d been offered a job, I think we would have at least had a discussion about moving to Marvell.
Marvell is not the only school district worth talking about. Flippin has made addressing dyslexia a school priority. As a result, previously struggling students now are excelling, and discipline problems are way down. In Greenbrier, students are earning two-year associate’s degrees along with their high school diplomas, saving their families a bundle on college tuition costs. The chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock actually handed them their degrees during the high school’s graduation ceremonies this spring. In Warren, grade levels are being blurred so that students advance whenever they’ve learned the material, not because they’re waiting for a page on the calendar to turn (or because the page has already turned). At Maumelle High, students declare what amounts to a major so their schooling can be tailored to their strengths and interests.
The point is not that all schools are excelling. On objective measurements, American students are not as prepared as many of their foreign counterparts to compete in a global economy. On the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, American students ranked 27th among 34 developed countries in math and 17th in reading. That’s happening despite the fact that American taxpayers spent more per student than many other countries – actually, $621 billion in 2011-12, or $12,401 per student in 2013-14 dollars, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But there are helpful takeaways from what Marvell and other school districts are doing. One is that many students might do better with a shorter summer break. In Marvell, there’s a dramatic difference in learning readiness at the beginning of the fall semester between students who attended summer school and those who spent the summer watching TV. Students are tracked regarding their progress in literacy. Few things are more discouraging than seeing that a student has regressed when he or she returns in the fall.
The second takeaway is that schools can do some great things when given a chance to experiment. They should be given that chance, even though experiments sometimes fail.
The third is that more is happening in education than the ongoing debate about Common Core, or whatever everybody is arguing about this week. Some things actually are positive, or at least hopeful, and if we’d all click off Facebook, turn off cable news, and go visit one of these schools (without listening to a screaming radio talk show host along the way), we might at least get a balanced view of things.
Skepticism is the ally of a free society; cynicism is an enemy of it. When we sit safely behind our computer screens and coffee mugs and murmur with people who agree with us, we see only problems – and people to blame. It’s only when we emerge from those hiding places that we see that good things are actually happening. That’s when we have hope, and when we have hope, we might act.
At the very least, we might have something positive to talk about.