Monday, September 27, 2010

Doing it "Our Way"

A common theme on this blog is that what is currently considered "education reform" is ineffective and actually destructive to the nation's schools. By now a firmly bipartisan movement, it is best exemplified in the Obama administration's quadruple platform of assessment, accountability, merit pay and charter schools. This blog generally finds those so-called "reforms" woefully inadequate and dangerous.

A story in the NY Times today presents a stark example of how real change can happen entirely outside the current reform model (and entirely within the traditional framework) of public education. It isn't anywhere near a game-changing exercise. What made it work is likely quite difficult to quantify, and no doubt even more so to replicate. It doesn't begin to address some of the larger complexities of the achievement gap, and lacks a long-term blueprint for guaranteeing success for poor children. But it does inspire hope, and confidence in good old fashioned teaching.

For a ten years now, Brockton High School in Brockton, Mass., with an enrollment of over 4000 students, has been exceeding expectations. And it has done so without tying teacher test scores to student performance, without mayoral control, without rigid top-down management hierarchy, without harsh "school improvement" penalties, breaking the union or shutting the school down. Instead, a small group of teachers simply got together and began a plan of action.

The committee’s first big step was to go back to basics, and deem that reading, writing, speaking and reasoning were the most important skills to teach. They set out to recruit every educator in the building — not just English, but math, science, even guidance counselors — to teach those skills to students.

The committee put together a rubric to help teachers understand what good writing looks like, and began devoting faculty meetings to teaching department heads how to use it. The school’s 300 teachers were then trained in small groups.

Writing exercises took many forms, but encouraged students to think methodically. A science teacher, for example, had her students write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich, starting with opening the cupboard to fetch the peanut butter, through washing the knife once the sandwich was made. Other writing exercises, of course, were much more sophisticated.
 A movement has been building for decades now, emphasizing small schools as crucial to turning around student improvement.  A seemingly common-sense idea - big institutions seem menacing and difficult to control.  But what this has often meant is hastily thrown together charter schools with little experience, yet big promises about what they can offer.  I taught at one of these myself and it was a nightmare.  Administration was highly out of proportion to the number of teachers and students.  Programs that required a larger student base to be run efficiently had to be cut.  There was no library, no gym, no music or art rooms,  no theater or cafeteria.  Special education was severely limited, requiring those with special needs to look elsewhere - generally forcing them back onto the traditional  public schools.

One of the hallmarks of the new reform movement is teacher bashing and union busting.  If only there were better teachers, they say, the achievement gap would be erased.  And the only thing standing in the way is the unions.  Yet "union intransigence" is about as specific as people tend to get.  That could mean anything.  Should teachers be expected to give up their preps?  Come in Saturdays?  Accept ill-conceived assessment regimes and time-wasting layers of bureaucracy and meaningless protocol?  Should there be due process?

At Brockton, because what the teachers wanted to do was driven from the bottom-up, and perfectly reasonable, there was zero union resistance.
The union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract.
An example: the contract set aside two hours per month for teacher meetings, previously used to discuss mundane school business. The committee began dedicating those to teacher training, and made sure they never lasted a minute beyond the time allotted.
“Dr. Szachowicz takes the contract seriously, and we’ve worked together within its parameters,” said Tim Sullivan, who was president of the local teachers union through much of the last decade.
 There is little to no evidence that any of the currently en vogue reforms are any better than what we have always been doing.  That doesn't mean that we don't need real reform.  But it does mean that we are engaged in a superficial pursuit that promises big and doesn't deliver.  When a group of teachers can come together and do what all of the millions of wealthy donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation can't (and can't show evidence for, either), it's time to reassess how we are approaching the entire subject of reform altogether.

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