Teacher-bashing and union-bashing seem to go hand-in-hand these days, especially in the opening remarks of school reform discussions. Yet when I look back with a critical eye on my own schooling—a hodgepodge of rural and suburban public, private, and homeschool experiences—it's not bad teachers or active unions that come to mind.1 Rather, a series of systems, opportunities, and curriculum gaps needed the most improvement.
So without further ado, here are seven things I would have changed about my own school years.
Earlier options for advanced coursework
Attending a small private (Baptist) school for the elementary and middle school years kept me from being on the advanced math and science tracks when I entered a public high school. Even if I had transferred before 8th grade, my small school could not offer the number of advanced (preparatory) math and science options the local public schools had available for elementary and middle school students. Upon transferring to public school for 9th grade, my only option was to take Algebra I, which left me unable to take Calculus before graduating. This was a significant handicap when applying for colleges as a computer science major, and I could easily have been prepared to enter Geometry or Algebra II if the earlier courses had been open to me.
Ultimately, I opted to study at home for 11th grade and begin college the following year—largely out of boredom—which brought its own set of challenges.2
However, students in the same private school who would have been in remedial math courses in public school did benefit from the single-tracking system in my elementary and middle schools.
Foreign languages prior to middle school
Even today, many public schools do not offer Spanish or French classes to their youngest students, let alone smaller private schools. Yet we know that a globalized business world requires foreign language competency, and the earlier you begin to acquire one, the greater your mastery will be.
I was offered Spanish classes beginning in 8th grade and fortunately had a Portuguese-speaking family, but I still regret the years lost. (I'm especially thrilled that my soon-to-be-Kindergartener's public school offers Spanish lessons from the first day.)
Special encouragement for all students, especially girls, in math and science
A few years ago, I found my third-grade report card in a box at my parents' home. I was stunned to see a note from my teacher: “Very interested in science.”
I don't know what happened between then and 6th grade, but my earliest memory of science class was trying not to gag as my teacher passed around a fetal pig in a glass jar. It was all downhill from there, and the school's adamant refusal to accept evolution as a possibility for the origin of species probably hammered the final nail in that coffin.3 What a loss.
I didn't regain an interest in science until I was in my late 20s, and though I try to read up on it, I'll admit that most of it continues to fly over my head. I hope to head back to the lecture hall one day and fill in this glaring gap in my education.
Heavier emphasis on career introduction
My family ran a blue-collar business, so my awareness of “knowledge” jobs was fairly limited. Like most children I really only knew about a handful of jobs, and even that was a spotty understanding. I would have benefited greatly from a weekly career presentation or Q&A session with various community members, beginning at a very early age. This seems especially valuable for students growing up in high-poverty areas (whether rural or urban).
Write, write, write
While every school I attended placed a greater than average emphasis on writing, even that did little to prepare me for the reality of today's workplace. And I work as a writer. How much worse must it be for others?
I would like to see nearly every class require ongoing written projects, with equal focus on content, style, and rhetoric. I was among the last of students who had "English grammar" courses;4 if the last few crops of English-majoring college graduates are any indication, the knowledge is poorly acquired by osmosis alone.
My husband briefly attended a community college that required an oral presentation as part of every course. Although most students dislike the requirement, it does wonders to improve their comfort with public speaking. Most jobs require the ability to convey some information in a formal proposal or presentation—or make the case for a promotion and salary raise.
Critical thinking and analysis
With so much opportunity in media reports, politics, statistical maneuvering, and pseudoscience, it's a shame that none of my schools devoted even a semester to critical thought. The cornerstone of education is a firm grasp on concepts like bias, ideology, rhetoric, and logic.
To be frank; to be honest
I once loved the Mark Twain quote about schooling interfering with education.5 My much-younger self believed that I could learn whatever I wanted to with just a book and a few hours. I now relate more to an obscure Twain observation:
“The self taught man seldom knows anything accurately, and he does not know a tenth as much as he could have known if he had worked under teachers, and besides, he brags, and is the means of fooling other thoughtless people into going and doing as he himself has done.”
While these seven elements of my school years could have been improved—and in fact, some have been—my overall experience was positive. I was well prepared for college and ready to join the workforce, with a few adjustments needed along the way. I credit much of that to my teachers. (Even the crotchety ones.)
In the spirit of knowledge-sharing and openness:
What would you change about your schooling?
1. My schooling history at a glance:
K4 – K5, Baptist School #1
1st grade, Baptist School #2
2nd grade, rural public school
3rd – 8th grade, Baptist School #2
9th – 10th grade, suburban public school
11th grade, homeschooled
12th grade, college
3. Though perhaps there was still hope for me; I was the only child who volunteered to be on the "evolution" side of the 8th grade creation-evolution debate. To my teacher's credit, we won by a landslide, which left me feeling something between triumph and dismay.
5. In fact, it's unlikely that Twain actually said it. Check this out.