Monday, February 20, 2012

I Had A Dream

Adam Elsheimer, "Jacob's Dream" (16th century)
I received an email the other day from a district official.  After reading my thoughts in their yearly teacher survey on school quality in their district, specifically on my site, my principal and what I felt they could do to better support my efforts to improve student achievement, they were so impressed that they wanted to talk to me in person.  They felt I had key insight into the roots of low student achievement and were intrigued by the transformational nature of my suggestions.

My comments from the original survey:
Our students come to us in various forms of crisis, such as mental illness (depression, anxiety), substance abuse, chaotic home-life, emotional trauma, stemming from a variety of original causal factors.  Many of them have elementary-grade levels of academic, behavioral and emotional development.  We try and address their needs as best we can and provide excellent instruction.  But their needs are often much more severe, and cannot be addressed by teachers alone. 
I think it critical that each student receive comprehensive intervention ASAP (hopefully this would have been happening years prior in their academic career).  Site-level triggers ought to be established that target families in need for referral to the district to be assessed for intervention.  Most students likely have siblings that are in the same environment and thus it would be more efficient to intervene at the family level. 
Interventions would be differentiated according to need, and support services would be brought together in a holistic way, so that substance abuse, counseling, parenting, English classes, after-school programs, etc. be examined and recommended for the family according to need.  Incentive programs could be offered that reward reluctant parents for engagement. 
These district-level efforts would support teachers in a fundamental way that gets at the roots of issues that make student achievement - certainly at our site - often impossible for many students (truancy, substance abuse, defiance, etc.).  But as far as site-level support, apart from referral to intervention measures described previously, the teachers at our site could use the following: more security in the hallways, more prep time for phone calls home (we used to be able to do home-visits), smaller class sizes for more individualized instruction and personal relationship-building, a shift from professional development geared towards data-driven instruction that is based on "bad" data (i.e. data that is not reflective of the specific academic realities of our incredibly complicated student body) and towards data-driven instruction that accounts for their unique situation and needs.
In short, talking about student achievement, especially in the context of school and district policy, simply can't ignore the reality that student achievement is inexorably tied to home life.  For too long we haven't taken this aspect of academic achievement seriously, assuming it intransigent.  Yet there is much that can be done at the district and site level to facilitate the kinds of interventions that will ultimately lead to greatly increased student achievement and allow teachers much more room to leverage their capacity through quality instruction.
 They provided me with a sub for a day, and I met them at the district office.  I came prepared with copious notes, evidence from studies and journal articles, as well as my own writings and thoughts.  I held forth on the current state of the conversation on education and how I thought it repeatedly missed the fundamental crux of the issue: the fact that poverty correlates with a severe lack of human and social capital, and that these deficits manifest in the school performance of children from poor families.  I then proceed to outline my prescription for school policy: a shift away from endless professional development meetings, and instead to a focus on intervention teams established to quickly and comprehensively respond to specific needs of families identified at the site level for further evaluation and support.  Intervention strategies would include home visits, parenting classes, school-family liasons and dynamic integration with community and government social service networks.  This would be a radical shift in priority and organization structure for the district, but by tackling the root problems head-on it would be enormously more effective and ultimately cost-effective.

The district officials told me that my vision was just what they had been looking for.  For too long, they told me, they had been struggling to keep up with NCLB policies and reform efforts that piggy-backed on its flawed emphasis on test scores as a measure of teacher quality, as opposed to a serious look at the root causes of the achievement gap.  They asked me if I would like to join a task force responsible for designing the kind of district-level intervention program that I had been arguing for.  They were prepared to invest resources in development and implementation, and wanted our team to begin researching similar programs in other communities, and would arrange airfare for us to visit promising district initiatives if need be.

I left the meeting with a full heart, knowing that - finally - teachers, students and families would be getting the kind of support that they needed to truly achieve success, and find for themselves the freedom of opportunity, leveraged from elevated levels of human and social capital, that our country should have been offering long ago.

I reached into my pocket for my car keys, my mind still reveling in the good news - but they were gone.  A strange sensation of panic began to creep up into my chest.  I looked down and saw that the ground beneath me appeared to be falling away.  Either that, or I was floating into the sky.  The cars, people, buildings and roads receded from view.  I closed my eyes.  When I opened them I was staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, lying in quietly in bed.

There had been no meeting.  No task force.  No airfare to innovative programs across the country.  With any luck someone might read my survey response and nod in agreement.  But there was no reason to think that anything would ever come of it.  The conversation, the political will, the funding - was too misguided, too weak, too paltry to even begin thinking about such a radical proposition.  One day, maybe.  But for now, only in dreams.

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