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Quality education is a team effort

Rebecca Horvath, Community Voices • Dec 3, 2013 at 4:45 PM

The recent hullabaloo over Common Core has obstructed the goal of the new standards: education reform and improvement. Schools in the United States are in dire need of a major overhaul as they prepare students for the future. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the education crisis “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

The 2010 documentary and book “Waiting for Superman” shed light on many of the problems in U.S. education. It’s a must-see for everyone who has a vested interest in public education — that is, every one of us. The book and film also highlight several individuals who have transformed school systems, offering possible solutions to many problems our schools face.

Among the worrisome statistics about U.S. schools are our rankings in comparison to 65 other developed nations. Our students rank 15th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, even though we spend more per student than nearly any other country. The crisis is dire; estimates are that in a decade, there will only be 50 million Americans qualified for the 125 million highly-skilled and well-paying jobs across the country. Those jobs will go to better-qualified foreigners.

Our students are just as smart as kids in other nations, but our educational system has not modernized at a comparable rate. We do, however, foster creativity and innovation in a way most other countries do not, offering students unique benefits and skills.

There are no easy solutions or quick fixes. Common Core was developed in an attempt to improve education by using more stringent standards and ensuring students in different states learn the same concepts, but its success cannot be measured for many years.

Johnson City Schools are well known for their excellence. Our schools rank among the highest in the state and we have countless outstanding teachers and administrators. Our teachers are well-compensated in comparison to many systems and our per-student budget is generous.

Excelling in Tennessee is somewhat relative; nationally, our state ranks only in the lower-middle of the pack. Our city schools do, however, perform better in math and reading than 61 percent of all systems nationwide and rank in the middle internationally.

Teaching is one of the world’s toughest jobs. The pay is low and the burnout rate is high, but it is also is one of the few professions in which a subpar performance does not result in job loss.

In school systems offering tenure, it can often be earned after only two or three years on the job, making it difficult to fire bad teachers. A shift toward a merit-based workplace is essential for overall improvement, yet most educators oppose that change.

Many teachers find it unfair to judge job performance based on student test scores. While those scores are certainly not the only measurable example of teacher effectiveness, good teachers typically produce reasonably high scores.

It is fair to use median test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation, but observations and reviews should also be major components. In some schools, teachers go without direct observation from their principals for several years, which is absolutely unacceptable.

Of course, a large part of any educational experience happens at home. Parents are a vital part of their kids’ education in support, reinforcement and preparation for school in the early years.

But many parents don’t have the time, motivation or knowledge to help their kids succeed in school. Kids will usually struggle if their parents do not stress the importance of school, making teachers’ jobs even more challenging.

What can we do to help improve our schools at the local level? We can start by letting our leaders and legislators know we are concerned, by contacting our representatives in Nashville and Washington. It is essential for education to be one of their top priorities.

On a more personal level, if you have kids in school, get involved. Be present, attend every activity possible and get to know your child’s teachers and principal. Treat them with respect, kindness and professionalism. Don’t be afraid to voice concerns, but be just as willing to offer support and help.

If you have valid reasons to believe your child’s teacher isn’t performing well, talk to the principal.

There are few things more important to society than good schools. Good schools are created with effective, dedicated teachers, involved parents and strong community support.

We are fortunate to have excellent schools in Johnson City, but we must continually strive to improve. Consider what you can do to help enrich the educational experience for your children and in our community as a whole.

Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist.

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