On Education




Choose Strategically-Sound over Sexy-Sounding Plans to Help Struggling Schools Succeed 

“There has never been a time in the life of the American public school when we have not known all that we needed in order to teach all those whom we choose to teach.”—Ronald Edmunds

Half-baked and halfhearted school improvement efforts won’t work beyond minimally, no matter how well-meaning, no matter how much money you pour into them and even if they carry the fanciest of titles. The problem is that these initiatives lack the moral-political will and the strategic wisdom to implement some very fundamental, operational principles like:

(4)    A school environment that is highly supportive of teaching and learning. Which means a high level of quality instruction and a high-quantity level (time) of that instruction. Teachers should be able to teach and students need a calm atmosphere where they can learn. If teachers and students are fighting against negative, physical and psychological learning environments, then quality learning will only occur sporadically and by accident.


(5)    We need (the best) “master instructional practitioners” to work with our academically weakest: those vulnerable students vulnerable at risk of not succeeding. These instructors must be assigned based solely on their ability to internalize and practice the 5-E’s of an effective teacher’s professional behavior: Ethical, Expertise, Empathy, Efficacy and having high Expectations for themselves and the children. (And then pay them more money!)

(6)    An instructional program that is driven by yes, an objective outside of the classroom common core of standards. And then make sure those standards are continually being tested not to punish and shame schools, teachers or children but rather for teaching and learning diagnostic and practice improvement purposes.

(7)    Adequate counseling, health and social support services (guidance counselors, school-based clinics, clinical psychologist and social workers).

(8)    Strong creative art, music, dance, library (F/T licensed librarian), STEM, research and applied technology programs. Children must be exposed to rich intelligence-building activities during school, after-school and on the weekends. Schools must engage in “smart” and productive test preparation. One way to make students more “test-ready” is by exposing them to the full spectrum of gifts and talents, enhancing informal education learning opportunities that privileged parents with the financial and informational resources offer to their children. But the best “test-prep” is to let the curriculum-standardized exam standards drive and be reflected in the rubrics of daily classroom vocabulary, instruction, learning and assessment. Professional ethics should stop us from continually asking children to “meet or exceed” city, state or national learning standards if their first encounter with those standards is when they sit down to take a standardized exam.

(9)    To truly achieve radically different academic results long-term struggling schools must look and act radically different! A “standard school” (even with additional Title 1 funds) format-schedule for poor children is an educational death sentence. Inexperienced “school reformers” did all they knew how to do with struggling schools, and that was to close them. But moving an academically struggling student to a different school building (perhaps with other struggling students) does not improve that student’s academic abilities. It is the schools, not the children, that we need to move. We need to move these schools to a higher and different level of building SuperVisionaryleadership, instructional excellence, expanded and enriched academic and social support services.


There is nothing wrong with the brains of poor, politically disenfranchised and racially marginalized children. A concerned and thoughtful approach to serving them could provide those brains with the opportunity to reach and exceed their inherent smartness, their natural inclination to learn and master the conceptual framework of the world they will inherit. The alternative is to continue doing what we have in a very failing way, done for so many years, just with a new “fancy name” and a higher dose of money!

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.” []



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