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State senator Jeff Smith (D-St. Louis) is intent on improving the city’s public schools.  Jeff has plans.  Whether he can get all or any of them enacted by a Republican legislature remains to be seen, but he’s been doing his homework, so to speak, and his plans are based on talking to a wide range of people. 

He talks to St. Louis Public Schools principals, to the teachers’ union, to the head of the appointed board, Rick Sullivan, to educational experts from across the nation, such as leaders of groups like Public Impact and the Education Trust.  He has visited some 38 schools in the city this year, usually unannounced, and guided his own tours through them to spare himself any dog and pony shows.  Jeff wants to know what reality looks like in St. Louis city schools, so that he can best plan how to improve them.

He intends to introduce a bill that would  mandate a number of new programs in districts that are unaccredited or provisionally accredited.  Here’s a sampling:

  • Free child care would be available for children between three years old and kindergarten who qualify for reduced price lunches.
  • Students would stay with the same teacher for two-three years.  Since ten percent of St. Louis city students are homeless, such a program would help a teacher get to know students.  It would add stability and foster relationships that might help keep kids in school.
  • Teachers could opt into a voluntary pay for performance program.  Their pay would be partially based on their students’ progress.  Such teachers would give up tenure protection while in the program in exchange for the chance to make, say, one and a  half times their usual pay if their students averaged one and a half year’s progress in a year.  (The program would be funded by a one million dollar state pilot program.)  This program is modeled after one used in Denver, where the overwhelming majority of teachers signed up for it.

To address the severe shortage of teachers in certain subject areas, such as math science, and English as a second language, Jeff is recommending three programs:

  • ABCTE certifies teachers without education courses if they pass a competency exam in their content area.  Of course it would be preferable to have fully certified teachers, but Jeff figures it’s better to at least have teachers who understand math teaching math.  Some of them will, no doubt, be poor at communicating with students while others will do well even without education courses.  At least, with this program, half the students have a chance at getting a teacher who can teach them math or science.
  • $5000 bonuses would be offered for teachers in the areas of the most acute shortages.  The teachers’ union objects to this provision as well as to the ABCTE program, and Jeff understands their point that all teachers should be compensated as well as possible (and trained adequately).  But students are drawing the short straw as far as instruction in math and science, and that deficiency must be remedied.
  • In order to be sure that teachers know the subject matter well enough to teach it, they would be required, every five years, to pass–with 60 percent competency–a test in their subject area.  If they fail, they could retake it within three months.  Jeff believes that 60 percent competency is not asking too much.  (As a retired teacher myself, I agree.  If a teacher doesn’t know that much, he should be gone.)

In addition to the legislation he’s proposing, Jeff also hopes to encourage Rick Sullivan to do everything possible to involve parents.  And knowing that many poor parents have reasons to take little interest in visiting schools (such as working two jobs or never having been that fond of school themselves), he is urging Sullivan to try two ideas to get parents to parent nights: 

  • Approach local corporations to sponsor such nights.  For a couple of thousand dollars, they could put out food at ten schools to make it easier and more appealing for busy parents to get there.
  • Offer programs for the parents in addition to information about what their children are doing in school.  Such programs might include home repair instruction,  information about tax preparation or help in job interviewing skills.

Jeff’s heart is in the right place as far as helping the city schools, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone in the community backs him.  The teachers’ union is unhappy with some of his ideas, and he took a lot of flak last spring by not opposing the state takeover of the city schools.  Some of his constituents are still upset about that. 

All he can say to his critics is that as he investigates what should be done to help failing school districts, he finds himself to be less of an ideologue and more of a pragmatist.  The state takeover was pretty much inevitable, and he wants to work effectively with those in charge.  (And besides, he sees Sullivan spending a lot of time listening to all points of view about what the city schools need.)

Those who don’t always agree with him will at least grant, I hope, that he’s working his tail off to do an effective job in a dire situation.