Ten Things Texas Students Need for the 21st Century Classroom

Our world, our nation, and our state are a changing at a rapid rate.  As the world changes, the goals and methods of public education must change as well to prepare students for the requirements they’ll face in the 21st century. We can no longer rely on outdated practices, technology, and approaches.

Our future is dependent on producing students who can think critically, collaborate, and produce project and systems driven assignments. We have talented students in our schools, and it’s time to give them the tools they need to be the next generation of great leaders. So what does Texas’ public education system need to keep up with the needs of educating a changing workforce?

1)   Update the cost of education
Simple fact: The state of Texas has not updated the cost of education since 1991.  We are currently funding schools using a complicated funding formula based on data that is more than 22 years old – from a time when a gallon of gas cost $1.12, a pound of bacon cost $1.95, and Internet usage reached a whopping one million users. Fortunately, the ruling from the most recent school finance law suit will likely require the state legislature to update the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which will create a new baseline for funding.  The adequacy and equity will hopefully come later.

2)   Funding
Once the state of Texas updates the CEI, the need for adequate and equitable funding for Texas schools will be paramount. Texas is the second most populous state in the US with a growing population of students.  Among these students are immigrants, students whose first language is not English, students in poverty, and students with special academic needs.  These are aspects of our schools that are costly and desperately need attention by the state.  Funding our schools is complicated and will require strong leadership in the next couple of years to see it through.  This important need and constitutional requirement cannot be ignored and is a critical for the future our state.

3)   Reduce the class size
After $5.4 billion was cuts from Texas school funding by the Texas legislature in 2011, many school districts adjusted by reducing teachers and raising the numbers of students in classrooms.  School districts across the state asked for record numbers of waivers from the Texas Education Agency to increase class sizes beyond the required 22:1 in grades K-4.  As the 83rd legislature returns some (but not all of the lost) funding to schools, it will be imperative for school districts to work to reduce the student to teacher ratio. Students are easier to mange, instruct, and are more engaged in smaller classrooms.  This is also a similar argument used by charter school advocates to promote more charter schools across the state.  Again, with adequate and equitable funding, manageable class sizes – for all grade levels – is essential.

4)   Technology
How quickly do things change?  Five years ago, Twitter, Facebook, and iPads were not found in any classroom in America; now they are essential.  The methods by which we need to educate students have to change and that will happen through technology.  Many students today are coming to school as “digital natives,” having experienced a wide range of technology but are not being allowed to use that experience in the classroom environment for a variety of reasons (lack of funding, equipment, training, ideology, etc.) Nonetheless, technology is here to stay and will continue to change through the life of our students. In addition, the education research related to instructional technology is conclusive that it has a significant place in our schools and in our students’ learning.

5)   College Readiness
Many of the jobs that will be available to high school graduates in 15 to 20 years will more than likely require a college degree.  This is a simple fact. More jobs are requiring students with prerequisite knowledge that can only be attainted through higher education in a two-year or four-year setting.  In addition, our students will be in significant competition with students from India, China, Japan, and Western Europe for the top jobs in engineering, science, math, and technology.  Our students will need to be critical thinkers, creators, evaluators, and more than likely need to speak more than one language –not French, German, or Italian – but Farsi, Hindi, Mandarin, or Spanish.

As such, it will be essential that we provide challenging instruction for students, promote them to take upper academic courses, and have better advising for them to promote careers that best support their individual skill sets.  As we work to differentiate their instruction through their lives, we may also need to differentiate their career choices when they are ready for the “real world.”  This means helping to make our kids “college ready” and “ready for college.”

6)   Best practices
In every profession, people maintain their skills through professional development and practice.  Education is no different.  There are countless conferences, staff development sessions, and other learning opportunities that education professionals attend—year round—to maintain required certifications and improve their craft.  This is commonplace in education. However, professional development has been cut in recent years due to the school finance crisis.  There have been less opportunities for educators to travel for staff development sessions or for districts to bring staff developers into their district.  Training is being compromised and students will ultimately feel the impact.

As such, it is increasingly important that educators are using the best practices research has to offer in our profession. We have a multitude of research to support the best instructional (Marzano, Danielson), discipline (Sprick), classroom management (Danielson, Jones, Emmer), and curriculum (English, Resnick, Stenhouse) and educators needs to employ these strategies early and often in our classrooms.  We are at a time when parents and politicians are expecting the best from our schools; we need to offer them the best.

7)   Support programs for students in poverty
Federal sequestration has hurt our poorest schools by cutting funding to low socioeconomic schools.  In addition, the poverty rate among children in Texas is significant at 25%,presenting a clear need for quality programs for students in poverty.  Texas schools will need more social workers, food programs, tutoring opportunities, and increased personnel to help teach, support, and grow our students.  Research tells us that students in poverty come to our schools with learning gaps, family problems, and a culture of low expectations. In addition, education has a habit of placing teachers with alternative certifications or limited experiences in our highest need schools. These schools, students, and teachers need our help and support to meet the expectations of state testing, college readiness, and the public.

8)   Deeper understanding of our changing population
Our state is changing.  Texas’ Hispanic population is growing, we have more children, we have more Spanish speakers, and we have more poor people than ever before.  However, our legislature is primarily made up of white men with private school educations from affluent areas of Texas.  This dichotomy in ideology and lack of understanding of our changing population cannot continue. Ultimately, it will hurt our schools. Our state must understand and adapt to our changing population by implementing training, funding, and supporting the educational system that will ready the next generation of Texas’ workforce.

9)   Instructional differentiation
We can no longer teach like we did 50, 25, 10, or even five years ago.  Technology has changed much of this need, but so has a significant amount of quality research dedicated to instruction.  In addition, our students are not “one size fits all”; meaning that one type of instructional technique is not going to work for every student.  We have a variety of students with various learning needs.  Special education students often need very different instructional techniques as gifted students do.  The same can be said for Hispanic students and white students.  The method of delivery must be adapted to meet the needs of the students.

Texas teachers will need help in learning various instructional techniques and be provided training on how technology can enhance and improve the learning experience of our students.  In many school districts, teachers are turning to Twitter chat sessions and Pinterest to work with educators nationwide to learn ways to improve instruction in the classroom.

There are many different ways to teach a single concept and teachers need to employ as many ways as possible.

10) Early childhood education
I want to make a bold suggestion that would be a significant paradigm shift in education:  it’s time to change the first grade. No longer should first grade be for six year olds.  First grade should begin at three years old.  The education gap is a significant challenge for our schools, as educators cannot control the level to which students are prepared before they enter school.

Many parents have the time, resources, and interest in providing their children various opportunities to prepare them for school before they begin and many parents do not have these resources or desire. It’s time that Texas schools take the lead and begin to close that gap by providing high quality instruction for children as young as three years old.

Many students begin kindergarten without having learned their alphabet, numbers, colors, or shapes when these concepts could be captured earlier in life. In addition, the very young brain is a sponge that soaks everything it can when it is in tune with the environment.  We can teach our young children two languages at once, provide opportunities to experience their environment through local travel, give them opportunity to interact with other children, adults, and various types of technology.  These learning experiences will close the education gap that so many of our students in poverty encounter and set our students up for fruitful adult lives.

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