The Need for Innovation in Schools

P.S. 114 in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn made headlines this past week with a pair of instructional reforms that run against traditional elementary school orthodoxy. According to Principal Darwin Smith, one teacher will deliver a lesson to a class of 60 while another teacher assists struggling students. Furthermore, students from 3rd-5th grade will switch classes, allowing teachers to focus on 2 subjects instead of the traditional 4.

Unsurprisingly, the former reform in particular has caused an uproar among advocates of smaller class sizes. As Leonie Haimson, executive director of the NYC-based group Class Size Matters, is quoted in the article: “I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s an unsustainable model that has no evidence to support it. It’s a recipe for chaos.”

I’m not going to comment at length on the merits of the ideas themselves; that is for the another post. What is relevant is that there are strong arguments in their favor: two teachers in the same room could serve a dual purpose of helping struggling students and giving the co-teacher an opportunity to learn from a master; the 3rd-5th graders switching classes allows teachers to devote more time to making high-quality lessons. In other words, they could plausibly work. And that kind of innovation and experimentation should absolutely be encouraged in our schools.

It’s no secret that our education system is fraught with arbitrary traditions and anachronism. We continue to cling to summer vacation despite the consequences of the “summer slide.” Researchers say that school starts too early, yet kids nationwide spend first period wiping sleep from their eyes instead of learning. So who says that the traditional model of one teacher in front of a class of 20-25 through 5th grade is the best? Especially in a time of limited resources, schools should constantly be reflecting and making logical changes when warranted. It would be one thing if our current system effectively served all kids. But we know that’s not true. So why not ask our principals and administrators to think as we hope our students do–with reflection, logic, and creativity? Of course, there is a possibility that the reforms in P.S. 114 will not improve schools. But we can’t let fear of failure halt innovation in a system that sorely needs it. It is unfair to kids to do otherwise.

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