School view from the inside


A few weeks ago, I received an op-ed column in the mail from a reader in Southwest Mississippi who thought I might be interested in what the author of the column had to say.

I was.

I write about education regularly, but I also understand a shortcoming I bring to the topic: I am on the outside.

I have never taught school and never tried to run one. My observations on what ails education in Mississippi are based on what I read, what I hear from teachers and my own experience of attending successful schools.

Don Magee, though, was on the inside for a long time.

Now 75, he had spent 32 years working in the North Pike School District  near McComb — two years as a middle school principal, 30 as a high school principal. Although he’s been retired for more than two decades, he has kept up with his former colleagues, and his observations ring true. After rereading his column, I gave him a call.

First thing, Magee said, that’s wrong with education is there are way too many distractions from what should be a school’s central focus: academics.

Extracurriculars — sports, band, cheerleading and the like — take students out of class or become a distraction. Politicians and others looking for publicity always want to schedule time at the schools. Then, the biggest distraction of all is the myriad of non-academic mandates imposed on schools by lawmakers.

Because schools have such a large captive audience, well-meaning people have decided that the schools are the best venue for pushing desirable social aims, such as improving health and diet, reducing teen pregnancy, and dissuading smoking or vaping.

There’s always an interest group  pushing lawmakers to add one more mandate. For a few years in the 1970s, Magee remembers, schools were required to offer an optional hunter safety course. A couple of years ago, there was a proposal to require that students be taught how to administer CPR.

What happens, Magee said, is that schools become more “custodial” than academic: that is, they spend more time trying to tend to the physical, mental and emotional wants of students than teaching them. And parents don’t seem to be too bothered about it.

“I would have more complaints about a bad school picture than I would about Algebra I class,” he said.

Magee accepts that some of these distractions are untouchable, such as high school athletics. “The South is the only place in the world that can take a perfectly good sport and turn it into a religion,” he said.

So what would Magee do differently?

He would have schools go year-round but on a quarterly system, in which students and staff would get about two weeks off between each quarter, rather than the three-month interruption to the learning process that summer break now creates. Although schools would operate more than the currently mandated 180 days, the classroom time would be shorter. Academics would end at 1 p.m., and physical education classes, sports practices and other extracurriculars would start after that.

He knows such a schedule is unlikely — “as soon as you tell someone you can’t go to Disney World in the summer, you’re going to have trouble” — but Magee is onto something. More but shorter school days would allow for concentrated academic instruction while making allowances for shrinking attention spans. There would be less of the regression that now occurs during the summer break, so teachers would not have to spend as much time reviewing material students had forgotten. And there would be much fewer classroom interruptions, with the afternoons set aside for all those non-academic activities that currently get in the way.

Magee has another observation that goes against the grain of the dominant philosophy on improving education. Higher salaries for teachers and education funding increases in general are not the cure for failing schools, he said. What’s much more important is to improve the working conditions inside of them.

“A most often repeated myth about effective teachers,” he wrote in the op-ed column, “is they either leave the profession or change schools for more money. Not true!

“Effective teachers ... change for better working conditions. Ask an effective teacher sometime. They try to escape disruptive students, indifferent parents and incompetent administrators.”

No doubt this is true. It’s why private schools — even with lower pay and fewer fringe benefits than public schools — have fewer problems hiring teachers, and why even within the public school arena, the teacher shortages are most severe in schools with the highest discipline problems.

Magee had more to say — such as how school districts are wasting tons of money on overstaffed central office operations — but that can keep for another time.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or


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