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Major Changes Our Schools Should Make

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There haven’t been many major changes to the structure of school systems in the past century. We’ve learned so much more about how people learn, yet schools have pretty much stayed the same. And that’s unfortunate, because a few changes could make school better for students, teachers and society as a whole.

10. Healthier Environment

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With obesity rates rising, we’ve all heard calls to make the school environment healthier. This can be done by making physical activity mandatory and serving healthier food, which has been shown to improve grades and teach students healthy habits.

While gym class may not teach anything academic, it keeps students active. Studies have found that physical work is important and helps students learn. Gym is just as important as math, science and other academic classes because schools should take a healthy body and healthy mind approach to education.

Getting students active is only half the battle — it’s also important for them to eat nutritious food. Most schools don’t serve healthy food, simply because unhealthy food is cheaper. So while money would have to be spent to upgrade school lunches, it would be a smart investment because there’s a correlation between healthy meals and improved grades. Also, with better nutrition students tend to be in a better mood, making classes run smoother.

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9. More Life Skills Classes

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If a person graduates at age 18 with a high school diploma, they’re probably versed in history, math, science and literature. But does this mean they’re ready for all the trappings of adulthood? Most simply aren’t. Experience and training in life skills like budgeting, time management, nutrition and even some social skills can be sorely lacking. For example, how many students coming out of high school know exactly how credit and credit cards work? Not enough of them, as many young people get into trouble with their first credit card. In fact, credit card companies are aware of their ignorance and prey on them. If time was taken to teach students important life skills, it could be one of the most useful things they learn.

The counter-argument is that parents should be teaching their children these things. While that’s true, not all parents will or even can. If life lessons were taught in class, it would ensure that everyone learned the basics of surviving in the real world.

8. Tenure Reform

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There are wonderful teachers that touch the lives of countless students. There are also teachers who haunt your dreams well into adulthood. These horrible teachers keep their jobs for decades, tormenting class after class. If they acted that way in other jobs, chances are they would have been fired. But because they’re teachers, they get to keep their jobs.

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Bad teachers can also affect taxpayers. In New York City, there were facilities for teachers accused of misconduct called reassignment centers. There were about 600 teachers in 13 centers around the city, and they were paid to sit in a room and do nothing. They would sit there for months, or even years. It was estimated that in 2012 it cost $22 million to pay teachers to sit and do nothing. Some of the teachers had been accused of sexual harassment, yet were still paid.

While the reassessment centers have been shut down, they show a fundamental problem with teachers’ unions. Getting rid of poor and sadistic teachers is an incredibly hard thing to do, which is awful because a bad teacher could change the direction of a student’s life in profound ways. Teachers’ unions are important, but there has to be an easier way to get rid of the bad apples.

7. No Homework Over the Weekend or Holidays

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This may sound like coddling students, but why do people who work deserve a break on weekends and holidays more than students do? The truth is that everyone needs a break. People are more productive when they have them. Also, weekends off would give students time to be involved in extracurricular activities without their work suffering because they’re forced to rush through it. Instead, it would be better to have dedicated time for work and then free time to unwind and recharge.

6. Mandatory Study Hall

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It’s understandable that teachers would want to maximize their teaching time and then have students do their work at home. And studies have found that a reasonable amount of homework is correlated with higher achievement in school. But while homework is important, research has found that giving students a mandatory study period can be incredibly effective, simply because it’s a dedicated time to ensure some work gets done. When homework is done at home, students have to find the motivation to do the work. They may rush through it, get distracted or simply won’t attempt it. Mandatory study hall in place of one class guarantees them time to do homework, which leads to better test results.

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5. Stop Standardized Testing

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In theory, standardized testing makes sense. It’s a quantifiable way to see if a student knows the material. But there are just too many problems with it. Standardized tests tend to be biased against people of lower income, as well as African-Americans and Latinos. In fact, the gap is so big that some school boards have a target percentage for each race. In Virginia, 46% of black students had to pass standardized math tests, while 68% of white students and 82% of Asian students had to pass. No one is sure why the gap exists, as studies have been inconclusive. It’s also important to note that standardized testing has prejudiced roots. According to Columbia University Professor Nicholas Lemann, standardized testing was developed in the 1940s as a way to keep Jewish students out of Ivy League schools.

Another problem is that the tests are created by companies who have little knowledge about the school system they’re testing. The tests are rigid and don’t take many factors into consideration. As Chicago Teachers’ Union president says, “…standardized testing programs often aim to judge students against measures that have little or nothing to do with what the classroom teacher has taught or is expected to teach.”

Standardized testing is also expensive, with millions of dollars paid to companies to create and mark the tests. It’s an incredible amount of money that could be spent on more effective tools, like healthier food. Yet schools continue to use this biased and expensive system to measure the worth of their students.

4. Merit Pay for Teachers

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A fundamental aspect of capitalism is paying a person a competitive rate for their performance. In some lines of work, bonuses are also paid out for reaching certain quotas. But teachers aren’t paid this way — a good teacher and a poor teacher who have worked the same number of years are usually paid the same. That’s unfair to taxpayers, good teachers and students. And that’s why some people, including President Obama, think that merit pay is a better method. Merit pay would mean that teachers are given a salary based on their performance, and then given bonuses for meeting certain quotas.

There are two main roadblocks to merit pay. The first is that people are concerned that teachers may just focus on getting the bonus and manipulate the situation by giving students the answers rather than do real teaching. Unions also continuously block the idea, because it goes against their fair pay rules. But despite the criticism, studies have shown that merit pay does help students get better grades.

3. Pay Students

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Student motivation is a serious problem. How do you explain to a 14 year old that they need to do well on their math test so they can get into college and then get a good job? The human mind simply doesn’t work that way — the time span between the task and the reward is too vast. However, if students were paid bonuses for doing well, then there’s a more immediate and tangible reward for completing the task. Paying students, even just to attend class and do their homework, has been found to help students in troubled areas. In schools that have paid students, grades improved, attendance increased and the percentage of people graduating went up.

2. Later Start Time for High Schools

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In the United States, the average starting time for high schools is 7:59 am. Schools start that early to save money on bussing, as bus drivers tend to do two different routes. First they pick up and drop off middle and high school students, and then handle grade school children.

While earlier start times may save money, it isn’t ideal for teenagers. It comes down to biology. At about the age of 14, circadian rhythms shift and teenager start to stay up and wake up later. Their brains don’t even release melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep, until after 11:00 pm. Also, teenagers need about nine hours of sleep to function at their best. To wake them up earlier interrupts their natural sleep cycle and makes them less productive students. In a study of 9000 schools, researchers found that grades in all classes got better if the classes started after 8:30. They also found that there was a decrease in the amount of car accidents involving teenagers, because they were much more alert.

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1. Year Round Schooling

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School schedules aren’t very productive. Students spend nine months of the year building their knowledge and skills, and are then released for three months. Then in September they’re either expected to suddenly recall everything from the previous year, or spend the first few weeks reviewing and relearning.

The reason we have summer breaks is that before the early 20th century, many cities had different school schedules. The schedule then standardized across the country to make it easier to do standardized testing and distribute textbooks. Prior to summer vacations, cities had their students go to class for about the same amount of time as contemporary students, but their breaks were spread throughout the year. Studies have routinely shown that having students attend school all year round would be more productive and effective. There would be less review, and students would have continuous practice. But the idea of summer vacation is so engrained in our cultural consciousness that change is difficult.

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