How top schools raise kids math and science scores

Jamie Story:

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Contrary to the teacher associations’ rhetoric, improved student performance does not require increased taxpayer dollars and across-the-board teacher pay hikes. In fact, schools identified in the report spend 16 percent less per student than the state average. At the same time, they pay their teachers more than the typical Texas teacher.

How is this possible? First, these best practice schools commit 68 percent of resources to classroom instruction, compared to 58 percent statewide. The most successful schools also have slightly larger math and science classes, which enable them to pay teachers more while spending less money overall. With prior research showing much greater results from increasing teacher quality than from decreasing class sizes, these schools are making a logical tradeoff.

Teachers must agree, as average teacher experience at these schools is higher than in other Texas high schools. Forty percent of the surveyed schools provide stipends to recruit and retain math and science teachers. And the science coordinator at the school producing the greatest improvement in science, Kerr High School in Houston, cited low turnover as one of the reasons for the program’s success.

Differences for these schools extend beyond spending practices. In a finding that teacher associations may celebrate, the best practice schools give TAKS benchmarks – or practice tests – fewer than 3 times per year, compared to 6 times per year in the typical Texas school. Successful schools place an emphasis on teaching the curriculum well; TAKS preparation is focused on the students who need it most.

One of the most important, if less tangible, findings is that best practice schools foster high parental involvement, largely through frequent communication with parents. Several of the schools have implemented online systems through which parents can check their child’s progress in real time. At Health Careers High School in San Antonio, students and parents can even set email or text message alerts to trigger when the student’s grade falls below a certain level.

Schools of choice fared especially well in the study. One-third of the schools include magnet programs, in which students choose to enroll in a school other than the one to which they’re assigned. These schools reported that school choice results in particularly high parental involvement, fewer discipline problems, and greater student motivation.

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I think the class size argument has always been bogus. When I was at the University of Texas many of my classes were in huge auditoriums with well over a hundred students. I liked having the big classes. If anything it meant the teachers would leave me alone so I could concentrate on the classwork.

The study shows the importance of focusing on quality where it counts the most and also how important choice is to success of a program. Usually to get people to make that choice a school has to offer a quality education.

Finally, without parental involvement some students will not achieve their potential. This can vary from student to student. I never really needed a push nor did my daughters, but my son had to be reminded to take in the homework we had watched him do the night before.

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