Smart Kids, Bad Schools: 38 Ways to Save America's Future

Smart Kids, Bad Schools: 38 Ways to Save America's Future

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by Brian Crosby

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In Smart Kids, Bad Schools, award-winning author and educator Brian Crosby draws on his twenty years as a high school English teacher to offer a candid appraisal of why our schools are failing and what we must do to save them. Crosby's no-holds-barred critique of the broken education system leaves no stone unturned: he is unapologetic and uncompromising in

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In Smart Kids, Bad Schools, award-winning author and educator Brian Crosby draws on his twenty years as a high school English teacher to offer a candid appraisal of why our schools are failing and what we must do to save them. Crosby's no-holds-barred critique of the broken education system leaves no stone unturned: he is unapologetic and uncompromising in his exposé of how teachers, administrators, unions, and parents all play a part in this national tragedy.

Crosby offers 38 ideas to save America's future and his proposed remedies are revolutionary. He recommends bold measures, such as lengthening the school day and school year, forcing parents to volunteer at schools, abolishing homework, outlawing teachers unions, and cutting special education funding. The result is a book that is likely to inflame passions on all sides of the political spectrum, and, in the process, introduce new ideas to a debate that is in dire need of them.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Crosby, a California high school English teacher with 17 years experience, wants America to fix its ailing educational system. His earlier book, The $100,000 Teacher, focused on paying teachers better to encourage better performance; this latest proposes a broader range of changes, from student behavior to a basic rethinking of how quality education should be assessed. After explaining that he's arguing for a complete overhaul of the system, not some marginal tweaking of the rules, Crosby sets out his 38-point plan, in 38 brief chapters. He begins simply: building more inviting-looking schools, ending social promotion, enticing experienced teachers to troubled schools and reviving vocational education as an option for the non-college bound. These widely acceptable ideas buffer the shock from some of his more heterodox ideas-banning teacher unions, recognizing excellence in teaching with merit bonuses, ending teacher tenure, cutting special education spending, ending compulsory education after the ninth grade and giving up on smaller class sizes, because there simply aren't enough great teachers to staff twice as many classrooms. Crosby speaks from a world of experience; his "political incorrectness" may bother some readers, but many will appreciate his honesty and his willingness to think outside the box. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Ralph Nader

In this fast moving shake 'em up book, public school teacher, Brian Crosby, manages to enlighten, infuriate, stimulate, irritate and maybe energize readers who want to do the right things for our children but have never given themselves the time to think about how it can be done down at the old school house. He gives committed readers plenty of chores, chances and choices to make a comprehensive difference. If Crosby makes you angry or horrified, he'll at least make you think and that trait is always a good precedent for action.
Ben Wattenberg

Brian Crosby knows how vital it is that our kids get well-educated. Lots of people know that. But Crosby tells us what to do about it in a book that is at once cogent, readable, and provocative.

One in every five Americans either attends or works in a public or private elementary or high school. For that reason alone, Americans should be concerned about the current sorry state of education and interested in making improvements. With 20 years of experience teaching English and journalism, Crosby offers 38 suggestions that include no homework and the abolition of teachers' unions. He begins with an appeal for physical structures that are roomy and engaging, and moves on to advocating smaller class sizes, no summer break, later start times, no school bells, and all-day kindergarten. He also argues for more-nutritional meals and principals with MBAs. In separate sections, Crosby tackles changes in curricula (bringing back vocational education and reducing reliance on standardized tests), teacher training, school funding, and parental involvement. Crosby offers a comprehensive and radical overhaul of failing American schools that threaten to weaken every aspect of American life, from the economy to homeland security. This is a passionate and radical look at what ails America's schools and how to make improvements.

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Smart Kids, Bad Schools

38 Ways to Save America's Future

By Brian Crosby

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2008 Brian Crosby
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3569-2


What Building Is Drab-Looking, Has Gates All Around It, with Bells Ringing All the Time? (Hint: It's Not a Prison)

When you enter a hotel lobby or the reception area of a restaurant, the first impression is extremely important. What is your first impression upon entering a public school? Is it inviting, does it put a smile on your face, make you comfortable, stir your imagination? Actually, quite the opposite. And people wonder why kids hate school.

What a shame that each school morning forty-seven million children are dropped off at a place where they spend most of their waking youth in buildings that are often bleak, fostering the attitude that school is a prison.

Why can't America's schools be designed with architectural flair? Wouldn't children want to be at a place that is pleasing to the eye rather than institutional beige — painted warehouses?

We can't just warehouse kids, but need to truly house them. Children deserve imaginative environments that allow their minds to contemplate, places where their spirits can soar. Why is it okay for children to go to schools where toilets and water fountains are not working properly? Why is it okay for students to be corralled into overcrowded classrooms? Why is it okay for students to spend up to ten hours a day on campuses that resemble fortresses? Just what kind of community does America want for its children?

In California, because of one parent's complaints that led to a landmark legal decision against the state in 2004, commonly referred to as the Williams case, every school must provide sufficient textbooks for its students and a clean and safe facility. Imagine that. It took a lawsuit to guarantee that each student had a book and that each school had a properly running toilet. Wow!

And even when there is a new building, problems arise. Since districts typically go with the lowest bidder, shoddy construction ensues. At the school where I teach, all the air-conditioning units had to be replaced, and all the carpeting pulled out, within the first three years after construction.

Let's compare how closely schools resemble prisons — and at a lot less cost, too:


gates and walls
one unlocked door for access
timed schedule of activities
high inmate-to-guard ratio
lots of inmates
a cafeteria
drab-looking facades
cramped quarters
socialization mentality
massd showers
cell mates

cost per prisoner = $24,000


gates and walls
one unlocked door for access
timed schedule of activities
high student-to-teacher ratio
lots of students
a cafeteria
drab-looking facades
lockdown drills
cramped quarters
socialization mentality
mass showers (at secondary level)

cost per student = $9,000

Who holds the keys in a prison? Guards. Who holds the keys in a school? Teachers. And just as guards turn their keys in before the end of the day, teachers likewise have to do the same at the end of the school year.

And think about the kids living in urban centers. They attend institutions that resemble the places where some of their friends or family members reside. Even the word "institution" can be used interchangeably with a prison as well as a school.

Another example of how schools resemble prisons is the tardy sweeps many secondary schools employ. A tardy sweep is when administrators and security personnel branch out (like throwing out a net) around the campus to catch wandering students who are out and about after the tardy bell rings. Teachers are to lock their doors when the bell rings to prevent students from gaining entrance to classrooms. Hmm, similar to a prison lockdown, right?

Struggling students need an aesthetic boost to their sensibilities more than the self-motivated ones do. Inner-city schools tend to be larger, staffed with less-experienced teachers, are maintained less, have less parent involvement, and — bingo! — have higher dropout rates. Minority students have more negative feelings about school than white children. No kidding.

When they go from poor living conditions to a ramshackle school, how can their spirits be lifted? Why should they go to school and work hard if they are ensconced in depressing surroundings? No wonder these kids don't achieve at a higher level.

Children living in poverty should be attending Taj Mahal — like education settings. We should be inspiring these children, not depressing them.

Recently, some schools have attempted to be innovative and imaginative.

When architect Daniel Cecil designed the Kennebunk Elementary School in Kennebunk, Maine, winning the 2005 DesignShare Recognized Value Award, he purposely imagined the school with a child-size perspective. Everything from windows to doorknobs is at a child's height level. Images of children at play are placed throughout.

North-Grand High School in northwest Chicago, where 90 percent of students are Latino and 90 percent of students graduate, features a two-story atrium, a culinary program, engineering and medical classes, and an indoor swimming pool. An Edutopia article on the facility comments that "so much natural light pours into North-Grand that energy costs are significantly reduced, but the oversize windows are designed to prevent glare, which cuts down on air-conditioning costs." Design director Trung Le said that "from a psychological standpoint, a transparent school filled with natural daylight will improve security." So often schools go unused after 3:00 P.M. However, North-Grand High serves the community in the evenings and on weekends.

Many new schools consider environmental issues in their design. The nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) issues LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, a seal of approval for a green school. Since 2002, over thirty K — 12 schools located from Massachusetts to Oregon have such recognition; close to three hundred have applied for it.

Common components of a green school include a system for collecting rainwater for reuse in toilets and landscaping, a roof where plants are grown that serve as not only insulation but as botany lessons, and windows that are glare-proof to cut down on electricity use.

USGBC's vice president Peter Templeton told Edutopia that "we want to create the optimum environment for learning, one that ensures students can concentrate and be free from distractions." And what are the distractions? "Mold, bad air quality and circulation, which often cause drowsiness, and inadequate lighting, known to hamper learning by diminishing a child's ability to concentrate."

One of the schools receiving a LEED certificate is Tarkington Elementary School on Chicago's southwest side with its use of low-toxic paint and caulking. The school's lights have sensors that adjust to the natural light flowing into the building.

Although Tarkington cost 6 percent more to build than a nongreen school, its environmentally friendly design paid for itself within a few years, according to a 2003 study conducted for California's Sustainable Building Task Force.

Would brightly colored buildings with more natural light and ventilation boost test scores? The California Board for Energy Efficiency discovered that they do. Test scores rose as much as 26 percent when compared to scores achieved in classrooms with the least amount of natural light. Plus, energy bills decreased.

Clearview Elementary School in Hanover, Pennsylvania, uses 40 percent less energy than a more conventionally built school. So how much more did it cost to build? $150,000 more. However, the school is saving about $18,000 a year in energy costs, so the added initial expense will be paid for within nine years. Therefore, not only does energy get conserved, but the district saves money, and the students do better academically. Would that be called a win-win-win situation?

Here's a helpful hint when building new schools. Whatever the standard may be for the size of classrooms and the width of hallways, double them. Yes, space costs money. However, squeezing thirty-five to forty students in rooms equipped for twenty to twenty-five doesn't make any sense. And as kids get older and bigger, they need more space to pass by one another, especially when carrying forty-pound backpacks. Why increase the likelihood of conflict by having students brush up against each other, especially when they are frantically trying to get to their next class in five minutes?

Also, why not provide students with comfortable chairs? In over one hundred years we've progressed from stiff wooden chairs to stiff plastic ones. How many years now has the private sector shopped for ergonomically correct furniture for their offices? It's common sense that if an individual is physically comfortable sitting, the likelihood of that person performing well will increase.

Once a student-friendly building is in place, children should be taught to respect their school and view it as a haven away from the rest of the world. If students believed that school was a fun and safe place to be, they would be less likely to litter or vandalize school property.

And protecting the campus is a major concern these days. Officials in a school district outside Fort Worth, Texas, had their own idea of protecting students when they paid for training that instructed teachers and students to throw any object at a gun-toting attacker. It only took eighteen months for the district to come to their senses and stop the program.

Another brilliant idea of keeping students safe came from Bill Crozier, a Republican candidate for state superintendent of schools in Oklahoma, who recommended that students use thick textbooks to deflect bullets during school shootings. He lost the election. I wonder why?

Once the physical plant presents a pleasing air, the adults working there need to foster a nurturing environment and not push kids away with their dictatorial, controlling attitude.

Students are bombarded with negatively worded messages from administrators broadcast throughout the entire school over the PA system, poisoning the environment. "Get to class on time!" "Any student found with a cell phone will have it confiscated!" "Students not following directions will face severe consequences!"

While these messages only pertain to a low percentage of students, all students hear the negativity and rarely get recognized for their part in doing what is expected of them. I wouldn't want that happening to my son or daughter.

In an Education Week piece, Robert Epstein shared a discovery made while researching his book The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen that "teenagers today are subject to ten times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, to twice as many restrictions as are active-duty U.S. Marines, and even to twice as many restrictions as are incarcerated felons."

The tension and hostility adults have toward young people is frightening. I can't keep track of how many times I have overheard a teacher or an administrator yell at a student, shouting "Shut up!" at the top of his lungs. And with such histrionics we expect these kids to like school and perform well?

One time an assistant principal was chastising a class for not being quiet and noticed one student who was smiling. In front of everyone present the assistant principal screamed, "You think it's funny? I'll teach you the meaning of funny!" That's not a healthy environment for either the kids or the administrator.

I once observed the librarian strongly reprimanding one student for eating food and not bringing something to read during a silent reading period. "There is no eating in the library. Put that food away," she yelled from across the room. "Get out a book or a magazine, if you know how to read." Such a tactic is not going to encourage this student to do as he is told. He will rebel even further.

Teachers play a role in encouraging a positive atmosphere through what they display in their rooms. Which classroom would you rather have your child in, one where the walls are decorated by student work or by school rules? In one environment students express themselves; in the other, students follow behaviors to stay in line. Having lots of signs with long lists of "don'ts" posted leaves no doubt that student misbehavior is expected.

It reminds me of a posted sign in front of a famous amusement park that greets all incoming customers, NO REFUNDS ON PARKING. Such a screaming notice isn't that welcoming. You figure there must have been a whole bunch of folks who demanded their money back in order for such warnings to be made.

The adults working at a school need to be firm but at the same time keep their cool. Students who don't follow rules can be a pain, but there is a reason why adults are in charge and not children — in order to show them how to act, not act like them.

Finally, implementing a mandatory dress code would help make young people understand that school is a place for learning, not for fashion. While I have long opposed the idea of school uniforms in a public school (thousands of kids all dressed alike scares me), having all students follow an outline of proper clothing with a certain color scheme is a nice compromise.

At schools that have such a dress code (not a negatively worded "you will not wear these one hundred items" code but a positively worded one, like "Good grooming contributes to a healthy learning environment"), principals and teachers have found that kids connect better to their schools.

If all kids follow the dress policy Monday through Thursday, then on Friday they can have a casual wear day. However, if even one or two students are found not abiding by the policy, then Casual Dress Friday is canceled. Ahh, the wonders of peer pressure.

Maybe if the students dressed more appropriately, so would the teachers who often come to work as if they are doing a home improvement project. How can an educator look at herself in the mirror dressed in shorts and flip-flops and conclude, "I'm ready for work"? Would any of us respect our doctor or lawyer dressed that way? Even plumbers have a certain way of dressing for their job.

One first-year teacher I observed was dressed like she was trying to get the part of Sharon Stone's stand-in in Basic Instinct. That probably was the only way she was able to keep the young boys in her ninth-grade class awake since it was clear she had no idea of a lesson plan. If all teachers dressed professionally, respect for them would increase.

If a solid foundation for an individual is a good education, then that schooling must be done in conditions conducive to maximizing learning. It's often said that a nation's most precious resource is its children. If so, then let's show kids that adults care about them. Build schools like cultural landmarks.


Size Does Matter: Larger Class Sizes, Fewer Teachers, Smaller Schools

What parent wouldn't want her child in a classroom with only a handful of other students being taught by one teacher? Parents wish to hold on to the belief that if a teacher has fewer students their children will receive more one-on-one attention.

Here's one tiny example that debunks this assumption. My son's first-grade teacher could not remember if his school photos had arrived even though she had a small class. As she told me, "With twenty students it's difficult for me to keep track." Boy, did that response make me nervous. What about the high school teacher with five classes of forty students each? Now for that teacher not to easily remember if photos arrived or not, that I could understand.

Research remains inconclusive whether or not small class sizes have a positive effect on student achievement. Japanese students continuously outperform American students despite much larger class sizes. Of course, there are large classes and then there are enormous classes. Physical education classes in the United States tend to run humongous. One PE class in Los Angeles had 123 students. At some point the number should be limited just as there are fire codes regarding the maximum number of occupants in a public space.


Excerpted from Smart Kids, Bad Schools by Brian Crosby. Copyright © 2008 Brian Crosby. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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