Improving education has dominated the rhetoric of nearly every political candidate in recent memory. While there is much that can be done to improve education at the national and state levels, we must not forget the role of local school districts in improving education. We must also realize the limitations placed on the 14,805 local school districts all across the United States. Every one of these districts is a creation of the state and is subject to the state's laws and regulations. Local school districts, for example, cannot end collective bargaining agreements (making it more difficult to fire incompetent teachers), and they cannot change state teacher certification requirements. So what can these school districts (and the nearly 80,000 schools they encompass) do to improve education? Enough books to fill a library have been written on this subject, and this article can only attempt to summarize some important initiatives. I'll start with some background: American elementary and secondary education has been dominated at least since the 1960s by "progressive" ideas and ideology. These ideas have affected both what is taught and how teaching takes place. Before, and in what are now dismissed as "traditional" schools, the teacher was an authority figure who transmitted information to young minds. Students sat in rows and learned the same subject at the same time. They studied basic math, phonics, civics, and grammar. That traditional model of education has become the subject of near-universal derision by professors of education. More to their liking is the current "progressive" model, in which the teacher is a "facilitator," who helps the child engage in "discovery learning." The process of learning, not the content, is the new central goal of education. A common curriculum is no longer seen as important because teachers now endeavor to create "critical thinkers," not to develop students who know a set of specific facts. Students become "active learners" by practicing writing, but their writing must not be criticized for fear of discouraging interest. Reading instruction focuses on recognizing entire words (the "whole language" method). The teaching of the sounds of letters and combinations of letters has been jettisoned as being an "unnatural manner" of learning. Strong evidence-including the serious drop in standardized test scores despite the tripling of money spent per student since the 1960s-shows that the progressive model has been a failure for American education. Therefore, in some very important ways that approach must be discarded or at least seriously modified. Schools should adopt a "content-based" curriculum. E.D. Hirsch Jr. has been a champion of a "content based" curriculum, making the argument for this approach in two important books, Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them (1996). He has also edited a series of books for each elementary grade titled What Your [Kindergartner, First Grader, etc.] Needs to Know. He founded the Core Knowledge Foundation (www.coreknowledge.org) to promote a "content-based" K-6 curriculum, which has been implemented in about 1,000 schools in 46 states. This curriculum lists specific topics that should be studied in each grade. Independent studies of Core Knowledge schools have shown significant improvement in standardized test scores, as well as many satisfied parents and teachers. In addition to a solid core, local school districts should give serious attention to those fundamental skills necessary for reading and for math: phonics and basic computational skills. The dominant method of teaching reading in recent decades has been the "whole language" method. It involves the recognition of entire words and does not give serious attention to learning the sounds of letters and letter combinations. That's changing; the American Federation of Teachers now opposes whole language, and the National Education Association is neutral regarding reading methods. Regrettably, the whole language method, like Marxism, is kept alive by a stubborn set of university professors. But one refusenik, the late Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall, left us a persuasive argument for phonics in works such as The Academic Achievement Challenge and Learning to Read: The Great Debate. These works should be required reading for teachers and teachers-in-training. We don't have to rely on theory, however. The effectiveness of phonics can be seen in schools such as the Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood, Calif., where nearly 80 percent of the students are low-income. Principal Nancy Ichinaga implemented a phonics-based curriculum, even though the state Curriculum Commission opposed her. In four years, the school-wide reading performance jumped from the 3rd to the 50th percentile. Fuzzy math became a catch-phrase in the 2000 presidential campaign, but it originated as a term describing an approach to math education known as "whole math." This "constructivist" approach was strongly advocated in a 1989 document by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The NCTM has partially retreated from this in an April 2000 document (Principles and Standards for School Mathematics). But even the new document stresses "discovery learning" and "process skills." The whole math method can be found in curricula such as Mathland, used in many schools across the country. Once again, we can look to Nancy Ichinaga for the benefits of a traditional approach to mathematics education. Instead of using a set of faddish fuzzy math texts, she chose to use the Saxon curriculum, which focuses on basic computational methods. Her school's standardized test scores were much higher than the schools using whole math. Learning math, not feeling good about it, was her priority. Here's another area where local school districts can change things: Most districts in this country can choose their own texts. Textbooks are quite important and must be chosen carefully. Texts that contain errors, as many science and history texts have been documented to contain, should be immediately withdrawn from consideration. North Carolina State University professor John Hubisz recently conducted a study of popular physical science texts used in the United States and found them to be riddled with errors. One textbook has the equator passing through the southern United States while another misstates Newton's first law of motion. According to Mr. Hubisz, the poor textbooks are "probably a very strong component of why we do so poorly in science." History texts are also vitally important, and thus school districts should weigh this decision carefully and consult some reliable critiques of texts. History Textbooks at the New Century by Gilbert T. Sewall, published by American Textbooks, is an excellent guide to the current texts and should be read by anyone charged with choosing a history text. Local schools considered it their proper domain to encourage moral formation and civic education. With the advent of educational progressivism, character formation was discarded. That has proved unsatisfactory, so in recent years we have made some awkward attempts at transmitting values in a value-neutral manner; among these attempts were the infamous values-clarification programs. But a consensus is emerging that as Americans we share some core values, worth teaching. Charles Haynes, an expert on religion and public education, has written that "sound character-education programs should be rooted in the democratic principles of the United States Constitution, the core civic values that bind America as one nation of many peoples and faiths." He adds that "strong commitment to these principles is crucial if we are to sustain and expand the American experiment in democratic freedom." This makes sense: Public schools can use curricula such as the Core Virtues Program to promote honesty, integrity, and fairness. Civic education also can be promoted. The Center for Civic Education promotes instruction in the essential democratic principles. Margaret Branson, associate director of the Center, says that "most young people don't understand government" and that it is "critically important that they do." The Center has developed standards as well as programs for schools to use for teaching civic education. Curriculum and texts are vitally important, but schools also desperately need good teachers and good administrators. Rod Paige, the current secretary of education and former superintendent of Houston School District, tied the contracts of school principals to performance in those schools. Guess what? School performance improved. And when hiring new teachers, schools might be better off hiring noncertified teachers-professionals with degrees in disciplines other than education-and granting "emergency certification." This isn't merely a way to increase the pool of candidates for a position; it's also a way around the bias against traditional teaching methods, passed on by many university education schools to their graduates. Competition brings out the best in people, and it should be encouraged in education. Public schools should not be afraid of charter schools. Schools should not try to talk parents out of educating their children at home, or harass them with tests that are not required by the state. Homeschooling is growing and effective. Homeschoolers now number over 1.5 million. Public schools would do better to be cooperative; for example, some school districts have sought to attract homeschool students back to public schools by permitting them to take selected classes. Schools should be accountable. But how? Author and education reformer Chester Finn says the usual method of accountability is "accountability via regulation," which requires schools to meet some minimum state regulations. He proposes instead the notion of "accountability via transparency"-wherein schools provide the maximum amount of information possible to parents, the press, board members, and other interested parties about standardized tests, teachers, curriculum, policies, and programs. Local school districts engage in many activities outside the core mission of educating children; busing and cafeteria service are but two examples. Matt Brouillette, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, says that he "would remove the school district from all noneducational services-busing, janitorial service, cafeteria-and stick to educating children." Competitively contracting out these services will likely result in cost savings. The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy produced a study showing that private busing saves money, for instance. School districts should also investigate contracting with private companies that provide educational services such as special programs for children with disabilities. Nearly 90 percent of school-age children in America attend public schools, and these schools must and can be made better. If we truly are going to leave no child behind, there is much to be done.
-Michael Coulter teaches political science and humanities at Grove City College