The Golden Triangle of a public education system

Education reform in America starts with teachers, parents and students

This is the first of a three-part series on how we can fix public education in the U.S.

A wise man once told me that there are three major components of a school system: teachers, parents, and students. Each component requires individual attention and has its own unique needs. Each also has unique contributions and ideas. If any one of these components is ignored or fails to contribute, a school system will never reach its full potential.

Throughout my years in public education, I witnessed just how important the health of this “Golden Triangle” is. The triangle, however, can be powerfully influenced by state and federal policies — or the lack of them. Thus, as we enter into the 21st century, it is time for sweeping reforms in education. No longer can the United States afford to relax in the middle of the international pack. No longer can standards be lowered so that no one fails and everyone is happy. No longer can each state craft its own curriculum independent from others. This article is the first of a three-part series examining what the United States must do not just to fix its public education system, but to make it the best in the world.

The first part of the triangle, teachers, is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a school system and for the all-important duty of teaching. Teachers can be a school system’s greatest strength, but they can also be its greatest weakness. Teachers have evolved over the years from lecturers to role models, mentors, and trusted adults. This shift means it is critically important for teachers and administrators to be available to discuss anything with students.

Structurally, many reforms can be implemented to address the current inherent weaknesses of this component. The first is perhaps the most important: merit-based pay that evaluates teachers based on their students’ test scores. The fact is that school systems are rife with both very good and very bad teachers. Those teachers who consistently have high-scoring or improving students should be paid more to reward their demonstrated excellence and to encourage them to remain in the field. Conversely, even after given opportunities to fix their mistakes, those teachers who consistently demonstrate an inability to improve student performance on standardized tests should be fired.

This is why I am excited about President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s new education proposals. These proposals seek to reform No Child Left Behind and task high schools with graduating students “college and career-ready.” Already, 40 states are collaborating on writing standards to define exactly what it means to be college and career-ready. The administration’s proposals will also change the way in which federal money is doled out. Federal money traditionally given formulaically to struggling schools will now go to schools who pledge changes that the administration considers reform, ensuring that money doesn’t simply flow to the same failing programs. While No Child Left Behind required that teachers be highly qualified for their positions, the Race to the Top program that Duncan implemented requires states that want money to rate teachers based on student test score improvements. This is absolutely a step in the right direction, and I am hopeful that more reforms will follow that continue to emphasize the quality of teachers.

The second component of the triangle are parents, who have the unique ability to influence their child’s success or failure. They play the lead role in providing the emotional support that children of all ages require to be successful in both school and life. However, just as there are some teachers who need extra support and professional development to reach their fullest potential, many parents do not start out as experts in child development. While most schools require teachers to undergo regular professional development, I was unable to find any states that mandate parenting classes for those parents who have struggling students. Why?

I recently sat down with Eve Sullivan, the Founder and President of Parents Forum, whose mission is “to foster honest, respectful, and caring communications in families.” She and her organization hold workshops to provide support and a community atmosphere for parents as they raise their children. Rather than provide strict rules for parenting, these workshops acknowledge that there is no absolute “right way” to raise a child, and so offer suggestions, advice, and most importantly, the experience of being supported.

Ms. Sullivan shared some of her frustrations with me. She noted that it was oftentimes difficult to get parents to attend workshops, and we agreed that this sometimes stems from a belief that attending means admitting that they have somehow failed their child. This is not the case! The only way they fail their child is if they know they need help and don’t seek it out. What is needed is a cultural shift where society, rather than expecting all parents to completely understand how to raise children and get them through school successfully, seeks out struggling parents through their struggling children and helps them. If the state invested in such a program, they would be helping children to succeed in school by helping parents to be the best twwhey can be. At the same time, the state should invest in more research in this area, as lack of data regarding what types of intervention were best was also a clear obstacle to Ms. Sullivan and others who share her crusade to help parents.

The final component in triangle: students. So often, it seems that students are at the mercy of policies put into place by their parents or the school’s administration.

The students are the ones who witness teachers every day. They move through the state-mandated curriculum every year. They live the policies put into place by schools and experience the very best and worst that each school system has to offer. Does it not make sense to get feedback from the students on what is working and what isn’t? Although some teachers issue anonymous feedback forms independently at the end of a class for themselves, school administrations should require this to be done and review them. Any competent administration will be able to ignore the frivolous reviews, and over the course of a few years, they would undoubtedly gain some real insight into the point of view of a student in how they view different teachers.

One way of achieving effective student feedback is that of a Student Advisory Council, which comes from the same man who advocated the “Golden Triangle.” Monthly meetings held with the school superintendent, principal, or assistant principal to discuss any matters that may come up have been, in my experience, extremely valuable. Such a council is a source of positive ideas and allows students to advocate for their own educations. Of course, it’s vital that the administrator actually listens to the students and acts on important issues. Otherwise, the students will recognize that the group is just a way for the administration to claim they permitted student input, while actually ignoring it and, to the loss of everyone, never taking advantage of its value.

Increased student participation in learning should be a goal that all school systems strive for. After all, students’ performances are key if the United States is to pull ahead of other nations in education. So how do we do this? In the next two articles of this series, I will explore the vital changes that must be made both to educational standards and the curriculum.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Superintendent Daniel Stefanilo, who embodied everything this article advocates for and so much more.