Yes, Virginia, There is Teacher-Empowered, Union Friendly School Reform!


By Jane Weinkrantz



          Celebrity and CEO interest in public education is becoming such an ongoing fad that it is probably only a question of time before Angelina Jolie adopts and takes over ten inner-city schools in LA or Lindsay Lohan releases her own anti-substance abuse health curriculum.  Any day now, Gordon Ramsay will host a reality show called “Hell’s Kindergarten” in which a group of frantic early elementary school principals scramble to support teachers, confront the incredible pressure to prepare everyone to share, count, add, subtract and read, introduce technological innovations appropriate for five year olds, deal with unmanageable budget cuts and excessive class sizes, address completely indifferent or unhealthily involved parents,  have the school determine who has sight or hearing problems, learning disabilities or requires free or reduced price lunch and still deal with the occasional toileting accident or death of the classroom guinea pig---all while Gordon screams obscenities at them and occasionally offers up his fiercest condemnation, “You donkey! Pack your walkie-talkie and leave Hell’s Kindergarten!”

          Can there be any doubt that real reform should come from the teachers on the front lines, not celebrity or corporate faux-altruism? The recent story of Brockton High School suggests that reform originating with teachers can make all the difference.

          According to The New York Times, in 2010, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools on standardized tests; however, the school’s story starts in 1999 when state test scores at the 4100 student school were abysmal. A mere 25% of the students passed the state assessments and a third of students dropped out. The Times views Brockton as a story of big high school makes good---  “4,100 Students Prove ‘Small is Better’ Rule Wrong” (9/27/10)---but a more appropriate headline would have been “Reform Designed and Implemented by Teachers Sends At-Risk Brockton High School to Top of the State.”

          After the 1999 tests scores were made public, a group of teachers began meeting to generate new ideas that would improve student achievement.  Teacher Dr. Susan Szachowicz, her colleagues and Paul Laurino, head of the English department would meet weekly to discuss making Brockton a more effective high school. As other teachers heard of the meetings, they joined in. Eventually, the group became known as the “school restructuring committee.”  It was informal, unpaid and actually met on Saturdays.  Administrators were aware of the meetings, but did not participate in or discourage them.

          According to The New York Times, “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 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.”

          I find this story downright heartwarming for a number of reasons. The first is that it defies the public assumption perpetuated in the media lately that “those lazy teachers” don’t care how their students stack up. In fact, here was a faculty who aggressively addressed their low scores and graduation rates with a shared concern by developing a sound educational philosophy that was the product of literally hundreds of years of teaching experience and a thorough knowledge of the student population. The fact that the teachers met on weekends illustrates their commitment, but should in no way be confused with the charter school notion that a teacher must be available every hour of every day in order to be effective.

          Another reason the Brockton High School story speaks to me is this: when I was in 9th grade, I took an elective in photography. My teacher, Mr. Gordon, gave only one question on the final exam: Explain how to develop film and print a photograph.  My classmates were furious; how could an exam be one question long?  I found that I was able to write a step-by-step guide that explained exactly how to develop and print a photograph. At the time, I didn’t know I had it in me. But, I learned another lesson that day. If you really know something, you can explain it. In writing.

          Also, Brockton High School ’s emphasis on reading and writing puts the spotlight on important skills that are often ignored when we talk about American education and how it stacks up in the global arena. How many times have you heard some outraged pundit state that American kids ranked 21st in science and 25th in math last year?  Does anyone even discuss how well our kids are doing in reading and writing, let alone realize that reading and writing are integral to success in math and science? Perhaps our rankings in all disciplines would be higher if we emphasized accurate communication across all content areas and decreased our focus on the 1 in 4 probability game of multiple-choice.  Perhaps we wouldn’t have had a predatory lending and foreclosure crisis if consumers could actually write a logical explanation of how an adjustable rate mortgage works. Writing across the content areas certainly isn’t a new idea; it’s just one that hasn’t been adopted nationally because it is expensive and time-consuming.  Even the previous and deeply-flawed six hour English Regents of the last decade which required four essays has been replaced with the new 2011 English Regents Lite, a three hour exam with more multiple choice questions and only one essay.

          Finally, I was impressed to read that the teachers designed the rubric and “began devoting faculty meetings to teaching department heads how to use it. The school’s 300 teachers were then trained in small groups.” How refreshing is it to read about experienced teachers developing an approach to instruction and then sharing it with department heads, training them on the rubric? Isn’t that far superior to a department head attending a workshop for one or two days and returning to train a department in his or her newly acquired skills? Doesn’t the Brockton approach make more sense than administration paying a bundle for a district wide presentation on some freshly minted method and everyone from teachers to administrators hearing it and its merits or flaws for the first time together and thinking, “Wow. This really wouldn’t work in our schools at all.”

          Was every teacher at Brockton onboard with the new ideas immediately? No, but I bet they felt better than teachers who have new teaching models shoved down their throats by administrators and Boards of Education with little choice or voice of their own.  Although Brockton was in a “turnaround” and firing faculty members is permitted and encouraged by the Federal Government to “reinvigorate instruction”  under such circumstances,  The New York Times only reports that “at least one” teacher who refused to participate was let go after due process hearings.  The members of the restructuring committee, whose numbers steadily rose as Brockton ’s test scores and graduation rates also rose, were all union members and made sure that the changes implemented were in accordance with the parameters of the contract. Susan Szachowicz was eventually made principal of the high school and, because she came directly from the classroom, says Tim Sullivan, president of the district teacher’s union, “[She] takes the contract seriously and we’ve worked together within its parameters.”


          The school restructuring committee didn’t stop with instruction. They put an end to some of the practices that many of us think of as “morale suckers” in a teaching day. For example, the two hours per month for faculty meetings that amounted to little more than housekeeping issues were replaced with teacher training sessions. Brockton was also differentiating its instruction to the point of ridiculousness; there were five different levels of classes, including a “basic” level which, placing fifth out of five, had very low expectations for students. Much of this system has been eradicated.

          The committee set expectations high and emphasized school esteem. Although nearly 70% of the students at Brockton qualify for free lunch, teachers started incorporating the phrase, “When you go to college…” into classroom discussions on a daily basis.  Strong athletes with poor grades were no longer given a pass academically. With Brockton ’s transformation came academic awards that the faculty made sure were displayed prominently for all students to see.

          The Brockton story should give all those interested in school reform pause to consider whether their teacher bashing, data obsessing one-size-fits-all solutions will work.  While other schools were spending money on classroom management training at schools where discipline isn’t a problem, offering quick and dirty SAT courses whose gains can only ever be short term or endlessly analyzing reports of accumulated data that came to the same conclusions any alert observer would have noticed, the teachers at Brockton implemented policies that matched the particular challenges their school faced. They identified what changes the school needed to improve and administration supported the teachers’ ideas and valued their insights because teachers know their students best. The point of Brockton’s success isn’t that an emphasis on writing is always the solution, though I would argue that it’s a skill that can’t be over-taught; the point is that it is the teachers who are most likely to know what’s wrong and how to fix it.

          Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard economist, studied Brockton High School ’s journey in his report “How High Schools Become Exemplary,” written with four other Harvard researchers and published in August of this year.  Ferguson discusses fifteen schools in five states, Brockton among them.  All of the schools had the same trait, “Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.”

          In Brockton ’s case, the leadership teams were composed of unionized teachers, not celebrities and CEOs who see changing educational practices as a benevolent gesture, not unlike adopting a stray dog. Perhaps instead of the scapegoats we’ve been cast as recently, unionized teachers working together for the improvement of their schools have been the Superman everyone’s been waiting for all along. It’s just that no one has called us.

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