One change – What would you do?

If you could make just one change to K-12 education that would have the biggest (and most cost-effective) impact on student learning, what would it be?

Would you expand charter schools? Privatize everything? Change teacher education? Make college free? Make pre-school free? Reduce class sizes? Implement merit-based pay? End standardized testing?

There are so many possibilities, and nearly everyone has a favorite. The governor of Texas just appointed a homeschooler to chair the state board of education — I guess we know what he supports.

But how often do we find out what students themselves think?

Next Monday, my 60 AP Macro students will turn in 3-page essays to answer this question as part of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve essay contest. For the next two weeks, I’ll be reading them and offering editing suggestions.

Usually this is a grueling task, as anyone who assigns an essay knows. It may be important to teach writing across the curriculum, but reading 60 or more essays about how to manage the oil boom in North Dakota (the 2013 topic) or how the Fed needs to change for the new millennium (2014) is tough. Especially when the students have little background in the subject or experience forming an argument.

But this topic will be good, even if the essays aren’t very polished.

Even the brainstorming was fun. The kids, most of them 14- and 15-year-olds, kept trying to offer ideas they thought were silly, like “more recess” or “better food.” But those aren’t such ridiculous ideas, I told them. Research is showing that free play time and good nutrition are correlated with better student performance.

If I were writing the essay, I would probably write about student engagement and motivation. Survey after survey shows that teens are bored and disconnected from school, and teachers are seeking better strategies to engage them. I think if we could persuade teachers to use more active learning strategies – and provide them with the tools – we could make huge difference in performance.

But then again, I just heard a fascinating report on NPR this week about Chinese immersion elementary schools in Utah, which are now serving 25,000 students and having fantastic results. So maybe promoting bilingualism is the best strategy.

And there was the article in Scientific American Mind that discussed how children learn better when they are encouraged to engage in make-believe or fantasy thinking. And the National Research Council report on the effectiveness of virtual simulations. And the University of Minnesota research on the benefits of later school start times.

Picking just one solution would be incredibly difficult, with everything we know (and are learning) about how kids learn. In fact, it’s much easier to say what I wouldn’t pick than what I would pick. I wouldn’t push for more standards, more testing or more technology without a defined purpose.

What’s sad is that with all of these good ideas out there, we seem to be stuck in a policy rut that keeps bringing us more ineffective solutions than ones that are proving to work. Maybe we should require our legislators to enter this essay contest – and challenge them if they don’t provide evidence for their strategies.

In the meantime, I look forward to seeing what the students come up with. They may not be as “educated” as us yet, but they’re the ones on the front lines, who get to live our public education system every day. I promise to share a few of their ideas here.

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