MAKING THE GRADE: How can we create schools that meet the needs of all students?

By Daily News • Last Updated 11:00 am on Thursday, November 21, 2013

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

Recently, I was asked where I get the ideas for this column.

I responded that I read a great deal — books, journals, information from professional organizations like the Michigan Association of School Boards and material I find on my own or that is shared with me by others. I have used most of those sources to write this column.

Previously, I have shared some of the things that are being done in other countries, namely Finland and China. This week, I want to broaden that discussion to include some additional countries. Most important, though, I want to ask you readers to consider two questions. What kind of education system do we want for our country? What do we want that system to accomplish?

My current reading material has influenced my decision to ask these questions at this time. I have just finished reading two books.  One is “The Reign of Error” by Diane Ravich. The other is “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley.

Clearly, there is no one perfect way to educate all of our children. But there are some similarities worth noting.

Ripley’s book is centered on the experiences of three foreign exchange students. Their stories led her to investigate the education system in the countries they visited and some others. Her inquiries led her to this statement:

“Compared to most countries, the United States was typical, not much better, not much worse. But, in a small number of countries, really just a handful of eclectic nations, something incredible was happening. Virtually all kids were learning critical thinking skills in math, science and reading. They weren’t just memorizing facts; they were learning to solve problems and adapt. That is to say, they were training to survive in the modern economy.”

Ripley also says that in every country she visited, people complained about their education system. No one was satisfied. They are dealing with the same issues as the United States and they all still have work to do.

Poverty is an issue that needs to be addressed, but the question seems to be, do we fix poverty first or do we improve education to fix poverty? In Poland, for example, nearly one in six children lived in poverty in 2010 and that country ranked dead last in a United Nations comparison of children’s material well being. Still, the average reading score of 15-year-olds in that country shot up 29 points on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) from 2000 to 2006.

In a recent column, Tom Friedman wrote about his visit to Singapore and he made this observation:

“Singapore is not a full-fledged democracy. What it does have is a government that wakes up each day asking: What world are we living in and how do we best use the resources we have to enable more of our citizens to thrive in this world?”

In summary, I would say that from my reading it is clear that we can learn from other countries. But perhaps our strongest position would be to ask our legislators to follow the example provided by Friedman.

First, we need a clear understanding of what it is that our students need and then we can talk about how we best use our resources to enable more of our citizens to thrive in this world.

I would also suggest that we then step back and expect educators to use their expertise and training to get us to our goal. We need to put an end to the practice of putting plans in place and not giving them time to work before we introduce a different plan. Education is complicated and change, unlike in the business world, does not happen overnight.

Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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