Students transition during the first day of school at South...

Students transition during the first day of school at South Philadelphia High School in Philadelphia. (Sept. 9, 2013) Credit: AP

The public school system faces daunting challenges: from the federally directed emphasis on standardized tests, from alternative learning choices' drain on resources, from the need to provide services outside the scope of academics. The weight of these and other problems threatens to crumble the once-vaunted system.

What some poor neighborhoods need, for instance, is more on the concept of the historic settlement houses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries than a place just to teach Dick and Jane how to read, write and cipher. Students need an atmosphere that nurtures, both emotionally and physically, to fill the void caused by poverty. Students in poor neighborhoods also are more likely to come from a household with a single parent. Most colleges of education don't prepare aspiring teachers for this kind of environment.

That, in turn, would involve a daily contribution of care far longer and certainly exceedingly more expensive than is the norm in public education today. Money alone isn't the answer. If it were, the District of Columbia public schools -- which spent $20,793 per pupil as of 2010-11, one of the highest amounts anywhere -- would be the best in the nation instead of being generally rated among the worst.

I've read recent reports of parents protesting conditions in older schools that lack air conditioning and some other amenities, claiming such settings compromise health and also impede learning. They are correct both in their assessment that attending class in a room approaching 100 degrees is debilitating and that what is needed is adjusting the school year to begin later and continue longer.

But wait. That would require radically changing all sorts of schedules that have nothing to do with education and might be inconvenient for parents and teachers. It certifies that for all the lip service paid to improving schools, in many instances, it is not really about student welfare at all.

While that may be a bit unfair, it is nevertheless a large portion of the considerations when it comes to making the system run.

Take, for instance, the University of Minnesota's research, dating to 1996, showing that high school students do better academically if classes don't start until after 8 a.m. Their attentiveness when they reach the classroom improves dramatically. Have many schools adopted this common-sense approach? No. Why? Because scheduling throughout much of the land is designed for the benefit of working parents, teachers, bus drivers, etc.

Another suggestion that I believe would improve the system and would cost little is teaching boys and girls separately, at least into high school.

The two sexes generally learn at different paces and with different processes. Since many schools have two sections in every grade, boys should be taught in one and girls in another with socialization provided at recess, cafeterias, and a variety of non-classroom functions.

But don't hold your breath until this takes place, for a number of reasons including political incorrectness.

One probably could list a host of simple and expedient changes that would improve the system that have nothing to do with the current testing fad and teacher demands. They aren't likely to happen either, as students now filing into sweltering classrooms can attest.

Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.


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