Virginia, There is Teacher-Empowered, Union Friendly School Reform!
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
suggests that reform
originating with teachers can make all the difference.
According to The
New York Times, in 2010,
outperformed 90 percent of
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
’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
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.”
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
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
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.”
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
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.
set expectations high and emphasized school esteem. Although nearly 70% of the
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
transformation came academic awards that the faculty made sure were displayed
prominently for all students to see.
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.
Ferguson, a Harvard economist, studied
’s journey in his
report “How High Schools Become Exemplary,” written with four other Harvard
researchers and published in August of this year.
discusses fifteen schools in five states,
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.”
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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