This paper shows an admirable amount of research and thought. However, to be considered perfect, it needs to include some concrete steps which its authors recommend be taken to implement the reforms. On several issues, though the paper illustrates the arguments for each side quite extensively, the authors do not come out and proclaim their own stance and recommendations.
With the ever growing and ever changing society of the United States today, the need for the school system to be reformed has surfaced. There are a great many proposals available, each one attempting to assist a different facet of education. Four of the reforms that we feel are important and should be considered are single gender classes, block scheduling, school uniforms, and holding teachers to higher standards. To gauge public opinion on these issues, twenty-seven people were interviewed, including six members of the school administration , sixteen teachers, two students, two parents and one former member of the Virginia Beach school Board. They each offered different view points and insights into the various reforms and provided us with a better understanding of how difficult it is to initiate reforms in the schools today.
Reform #1: Single Gender Classes
Single gender classes have, for a variety of reasons, been implemented in many schools. Some schools have implemented this policy in the hopes of benefiting young African-American men who lack a significant father figure at home. Another goal is to eliminate the behavior problems and classroom distractions which are caused by over-active hormones in adolescents. A third premise is to bridge the gaps in test scores between girls and boys by giving girls a single sex learning environment that is insecurity and intimidation free. These three reasons have been the driving force behind several schools experimenting with, and even accepting on a permanent basis, same gender classrooms. The schools have had tremendous positive results and have prompted strong responses from those both inside and outside the schools.
Bowling Park Elementary was the first CoZi school in the nation and has adapted a school-wide single gender program. The CoZi program, as it is called, was created by two psychologists at Yale University; James Comer and Edward Ziler. Their theory is based on the six developmental pathways of a child's learning: physical, cognitive, psychological, language and social and ethical development. Bowling Park's principal, Ms. Clark, feels that by volunteering to be a CoZi school they also have the freedom to exercise all types of new and experimental programs, which, free of the classroom distractions, increase real learning time. She feels their decisions to have the school use single gender classes focuses the curriculum on the child, which is a main goal of a CoZi school. She has had great success with the program.
The influence the school has over the students is a responsibility that James Monreo's Elementary school is not taking lightly. Mrs. Higgins, James Monroe's principal, sees the breakdown of the nuclear family as a serious problem that may of today's students face, particularly young African-American men. This, along with the desire to foster the student's teamwork skills, the bonding process between teacher and student, and the elimination of distractions that inflict a co-ed class were the motivation for James Monroe to try the single gender classroom model. Here, there are four same sex classrooms; two girls and two boys. The girls are taught by women teachers and the boys are taught by men. The students were chosen based on the assessment of their developmental and social needs. Mrs. Clark ensures that there is a variety of learning abilities and behavior patterns incorporated into each class. The parents must agree to have their child placed in a single gender class in order to prevent problems arising which may disable the program for the students that it helps.
Supporters of the single gender class program say that it helps over come certain obstacles faced by boys or girls and allows them to achieve in a more focused environment. In fact, 100% of the interviewees believed single gender classes to be an enormous benefit to female students. "Girls do better in all girl math classes," said Dr. Pipher, author of the book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Sieves of Adolescent Girls. "Girls have trouble in math because math requires the qualities that many junior high girls lack: confidence, trust in one's own judgement, and the ability to tolerate frustration without becoming overwhelmed." Lisa Kopacz agrees. Last year she was unintentionally assigned a government class of all girls. Mrs. Kopacz states that she was surprised by the effect of not having any boys in the class, saying that never had an entire class participated to the extent of this class. She was also free of many of the arguments which occur between males and females over issues discussed in class. Test scores were higher and the general attitude of the girls was superior when compared to the other classes she had last year. Without boys in the classroom, many pressures are lifted and the environment is such that girls display more confidence in themselves and their intelligence. They are freer to ask questions and gain enough knowledge and confidence which allows them to function with greater ease and success in future co-ed classes.
The success of the boys in same gender classes seems to depend upon how stern the teacher is. With a firm hand the boys do as well as the girls. However, a lack of sternness leads to more fights and less self-discipline from the students. Of those interviewed, 80% said they feel that the boys benefit from single gender classes, with the other 20% stating that the boys create more discipline problems in same sex classes.
In spite of the positive results found in single gender classes, there are still those who disagree with the program's practices. One teacher stated that it only allows for one perspective in the lessons. Males and females think differently and therefore look at issues differently, and in the same sex class the students are robbed of that opposite interpretation and point of view. Other said that single gender classes should not be allowed because it presents an unrealistic view of society. Society is not separated by gender, and to do so in the classroom neglects students' opportunities to work with the other sex. Some critics maintain that the idea violates the Constitution and federal anti-discrimination law. They also believe that it is educationally unsound because it promotes stereotypes or wrongfully attributes academic success to gender separation.
These critics use Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as the basis for their complaint. Title IX prohibits discrimination of the basis of gender in educational programs receiving federal financial assistance. Although Title IX does not require that school districts provide equal facilities, course, and services to girls and boys, it generally prohibits single gender classrooms in co-educational schools, with the exception being physical education courses involving contact sports and sex education classes. One gray area is a Federal Department of Education regulation stating that districts may take action to overcome conditions that have limited participation by one sex in a particular course offering. Some districts have pointed to this exception to justify math classes for girls. Norma V. Cantu, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department said that the 1972 law does not prohibit separate schools for girls and boys as long as the facilities and offerings are compatible. However, in addition to Title IX, critics believe by putting aside girls, as the case with math classes, people insinuate that the girls do not do as well as the boys because of who they are, and society needs to learn not to assume things of people based solely on their gender.
Even as test scores have risen, learning time in the classroom has increased, and 41% of girls and 29% of boys said they would like to take a single gender class, it seems that same gender classes should remain an option for now. With only 67% of those interviewed supporting single gender classes, it appears that this reform will most definitely remain an option. Most of those interviewed felt it should be available statewide, but should not be mandatory. In fact, Laura Tebault, a former member of the Virginia Beach School Board, said that the issue is so widely contested that it would most likely never be mandated. According to Mrs. Tebault, "Classrooms should reflect society, and until the men and women are segregated in the real would they should not be segregated in the classroom." Opponents believe that the success depends on many factors and the program should not force anyone into any mold when learning is at stake.
Reform #2: Block Scheduling
Block Scheduling has surfaced over the past few years as an alternative to the traditional seven bell schedule. A block schedule utilizes four 90-minute blocks which meet every other day. The motivations behind this scheduling alternative include a desire to reduce the number of classes as student and teacher need to prepare for in one day, allot more time to the teaching of a lesson, and make the school day less stressful for both the teachers and students.
Block scheduling has a number of benefits as well as it share of drawbacks. Block scheduling is believed to improve organization and time management, as well as foster more in-depth and active learning. Some of the objections to block scheduling point to the added time a teacher has to occupy the attention of the students. The schedule is also difficult for teachers, student, and parents to understand and grow accustomed to. Some critics argue that this confusion leads to greater stress, and therefore falls short of the goals set for it. The advocates of block scheduling outweigh the opponents, and as a result, a number of schools in the area, including Princess Anne high School, Bethel High School, and Ruffner Middle School have implemented block schedules. Chesapeake city schools are considering mandating block scheduling for every public school starting next year, and Lake Taylor High School is currently attempting to implement block scheduling. The schools report great success with it and believe it to be a reform from which every school should benefit.
Princess Anne High School began block scheduling three years ago and has received a great deal of positive feedback about it. The two students interviewed agreed that it more fully prepares the student for college and decreases the amount of stress regarding homework. With block scheduling, a student has only four subjects of homework a night and an extra night to complete the homework as opposed to six or seven subjects every night. Eighty percent of the teachers and principals interviewed believe that the block scheduling is a benefit to the teachers as well, stating that it provides them more time to teach a lesson and provide help when needed. With only the fifty minutes of class time provided by the seven bell schedule, a teacher must rush through the lesson without ensuring that the students understand the concepts introduced in class. Mrs. Saulsberry, the assistant principal at Princess Anne, remarked that one of the best parts of block scheduling is that it challenges a teacher's methodology and forces them to try new teaching techniques. It also provides that chance for students to begin their homework in school, thus providing the immediate feedback that the teachers need to determine how effective their lessons plans were.
Block scheduling is not without its critics. Miss Krebs, a Latin teacher at Green Run High School, describes block scheduling as "peck 'em deep, teach 'em cheap." She says that the only real benefits to the block schedule are those found by the school system. With block scheduling a teacher need only be paid for the three classes they teach; their fourth block is a planning block. Miss Krevbs believes that the block schedule increases the speed with which the information is presented and weakens the retention rate of the students. Other opponents point to the fact that the ninety minute block is too long and it is impossible to hold the students' attention. Mrs. Tiebault agrees, stating that the students would most definitely get bored with the added 40 minutes of class. She does stipulate that there would be less time lost in changing classes, but that lack of attention that most students would pay in a ninety minute class out weights the positive.
The biggest controversy facing block scheduling is that it limits the number of credits a student takes in a semester. The most popular block schedule in the Commonwealth of Virginia is the 4x4 schedule: 84 Virginia high schools are currently on this type of schedule, and it is the one that Chesapeake hopes to implement city-wide next year. In a 4x4 schedule, a student takes four classes a semester and receives a year's credit for the course. The problem arises because of the high transience rate in this area. Students transferring in would either find themselves extremely ahead or drastically behind. Another problem is with the advanced placement course offered. If the class is taken in the fall, the students have forgotten information vital to their success by the time the AP exam arrives in may.
Even though block scheduling is popular with the schools now trying it there are far too many questions and concerns which need to be addressed before it can become a widely accepted scheduling alternative for both the state and the nation. Seventy-eight percent of the interviewees strongly agreed with and supported block scheduling, but the 28% opposing it had real concerns which, until solved, will keep this alternative from becoming mainstream.
Reform #3: School Uniforms
Over the past several years there have been a great many problems that have afflicted the public school system, and several of these have involved the attire worn by the students. There have been cases of students being attacked by one another in order to steal a nice leather coat or a pair of expensive tennis shoes. Here is Virginia, parents have been faced with a child who does not want to go to school because he/she does not have the latest style of something. The idea of school uniforms has surfaced as a possible solution to the problems of what to wear, as well as more serious issues such as curbing the growing number of disciplinary problems, reducing the cultural and economic differences amount students, and re-focusing the students' attention on learning.
Many school in the area have experimented with the idea of school uniforms, and they have had a myriad results. One main dictator of those results had proven to be the city school board's willingness to allow the schools to mandate the uniform policy. Norfolk has given its schools the ability to require students to wear uniforms; Virginia beach has not. As a result Norfolk has seen far greater success with its policy than has Virginia Beach. When asked about Virginia Beach's unwillingness to mandate a uniform policy, Mrs. Tebault responded that a majority - 88%, in fact - of the school board supports the idea of school uniforms in theory. The problem arises, however, because the economic make-up of the population in Virginia Beach is so diverse that it would be difficult to provide aide to the families who need it while maintaining a level of fairness in deciding who would qualify. That would be too hard for the individual schools to do on a permanent basis, and the school board is just unwilling to mandate something which would ultimately create such divisiveness and chaos.
Thalia Elementary school was the first school to entertain the idea of school uniforms in Virginia Beach. The motivation behind it was not disciplinary but economic. Students at Thalia are either from families with a great deal of money or none at all -- "There is not a middle class here," says Dr. Felty, the school's principal. This economic difference appeared in the test scores, and Dr. Felty believes it was not all economic. When a student looks a certain way, the teacher inadvertently forms an opinion about that student's capabilities, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hope was that the uniforms would convey the message that the students were in school to do business and thus the differences in the test scores would decrease.
A major problem that faced Thalia, and all the other Virginia Beach schools that tried the program, was that it could not be made a mandatory policy, and as a result the highest level of participation was 78% in September: by January it had dropped to 38%. Thalia discontinued its policy after one year. In that one year, however, only 4% of the referrals involved students in uniform and the test score differential was lowered 30%.
Seatack Elementary school, also in Virginia Beach, has a uniform policy and plans to continue it. Seatack, like most other schools with a uniform policy, hoped to reduce behavior problems and improve the self-esteem, grades, and attendance of the students. Participation at Seatack is about 40%, and there has only been marginal improvement in behavior, grades and attendance. The significant difference has been in the morale of the students. Seatack's students are from the lower socio-economic class and as such value anything new they have. The students have responded positively to the uniform; the parents have not. Seatack's assistant principal, Mr. McDonough believes it is attributed to the resistance to change that many parents have. That, and the school board's refusal to mandate a uniform policy, makes the uniform policy difficult to succeed.
Many schools, such as Ruffner Middle School, have had a great deal of success with uniforms. They report an increase in morale among the students, a decrease in behavior problems, and a much more professional, business-like atmosphere in the school. Referrals were reduced by 44% after the first year of the policy. Mrs. Lassiter, the assistant principal at Ruffner, suggests that they were able to enforce the policy with such strength because they became a magnet school, and offers that as a possible solution to Virginia Beach. Indeed, Seatack's administration is currently working with the Superintendent of Virginia Beach to try and make Seatack a magnet school, thus allowing them to mandate the uniform policy and thereby achieve the goals they established.
Many of those interviewed felt that a uniform policy would be beneficial to the schools and to the students. Mr. Pearson, a teacher at Ruffner Middle School, stated that the uniforms take the focus off less important things and put the emphasis back on education. Others remarked that the uniforms put the students in a frame of mind that is conducive to learning. They look professional and as a result they act more professionally. Reports show that uniforms are much more affordable for families than regular clothes. Also, many schools provide aid for the families who may not be able to afford the uniforms, and thus make them easier for families to attain. Both of the parents who were interviewed loved the idea of school uniforms. Mrs. Schoonover, who has a daughter in kindergarten, said that the uniforms make the mornings much easier and instill a sense of school spirit in the students.
There are, of course, a number of opponents to school uniform policies. One principal said that "good schools do not need uniforms because they have found better ways of dealing with discipline problems." Indeed, President Clinton was criticized for his support of school uniforms in an article titled "Uniforms in Public Schools: An Idea That Doesn't Fit." Written by Ryan Brooks, the article states that "Clinton and the other politicians have come up with a quick fix, one that makes for nice headlines but does little to stem the increase in violence among teens." Many critics believe that the focus needs to be on issues like gun control and the lack of self worth that many teens have today.
Of the 33% of the interviewees opposed to the uniforms, 93% say that it infringes on the students' right to self expression. It is seen by many as another way that schools gain control over the lives of the students. There was also an expression of concern on how a school would enforce the policy. Ms. Lancaster, a teacher at Princess Anne, believes that uniforms do little more than cause teachers to have headaches because they end up focusing on whether a student is complying with the uniform policy and have less emphasis on the actual task at hand: learning.
A major obstacle to school uniforms is, once again, the high rate of transience this area has. A transfer student will be thrust into a new uniform in the middle of the school year, and this puts more strain on the parents to provide uniforms in an expeditious manner. Also, the lack of community support will prevent this reform from fully reaching its potential. Any policy will be unsuccessful if it is not enforced with consistency, and this class for the need of mandated uniform policies. Research shows that people are not going to participate in a deviation unless they have to. In order for any reform to succeed, it must have the full weight of the community and the school board behind it. Until it does, it will only appear in a small number of schools.
Reform #4: Higher Standards for Teachers
A major debate has surfaced in today's schools, and it has centered around the apparent diminishing standards of teachers. An attempt has been made at improving the quality of teachers graduating today by increasing the courses required of them. Little has been done, however, to address the issues concerning teachers with tenure. The problem arises in the definition of what the standard should be, and until a consensus can be reached, the problems facing today's teachers will never be solved.
For the purposes of this paper we suggested altering some of the rectification requirements for teachers with tenure in order to provide them with more adequate and consistent benefit from more observations. The main fear was that the observation would be used for disciplinary rather than constructive purposes. Two teachers, however, believe that any observation is constructive because it provides the teacher with more feedback and varying perspectives on their teaching methods. Mrs. Basdikis, a teacher at Salem High, simply smiled and said, "Anyone can come into my room any time they like--observers are always welcome."
The workshops met with the most resistance, with 63% saying that they did not feel the need to learn any more than they had. "Active participation is much more beneficial than sitting in a classroom and listening to someone else talk," stated Miss Krebs. Another teacher remarked that the schools have counseling departments to deal with the problems facing students; the teachers have enough responsibility already. Others felt that courses which pertain to their specific subject area were sufficient in updating their teaching methods. However, the 27% who support requiring workshops all believe that teachers need to stay in tune with the needs of their students and the only way to do that is by learning new methods and learning to better understand the social and psychological issues facing today's teens.
Overall there is general support for holding teachers to higher standards, and many believe that teachers themselves are seeing this need and addressing it themselves. They attend a number of workshops and are constantly offering advice to others to help improve their styles and practices. There is also an apparent trend in the use of mentors. Teachers are unofficially assigning themselves as a mentor to both new teachers and future teachers, and both parties are claiming satisfaction with the results. In order for these to be adopted officially, however, requires laws and ordinances to be changed, and no one is optimistic about this occurring in the near future.
Very few of the responses were surprising, but one recurrent issue was the apparent lack of willingness on the part of the local governments and school boards to change. Each reform is a practical suggestion which, as results have indicated, have produced the desired effects. They are, of course, far from perfect, and several problems need to be addressed before any of these reforms can be implemented on a large scale basis. Until people are willing and able to view these reforms with an open mind, however, it appears that a majority of schools will continue down the lackluster path upon which the nation is directed.
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Last Update: 01.25.98