Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Somebody Explain This to Me

For the past eighteen years I have worked as a high school/middle school principal along side a dedicated staff and a committed community to improving a school. In that time we have increased graduation and college going rates, engaged our students in more internships and college courses, created an advisory system that keeps tabs on all of our students, and developed the highest graduation standards in the state (including a Senior Project and Graduation Portfolio).

But reading the popular press, and listening to the chatter from Washington, I have just found out that we are not part of the movement to ‘reform’ schools.

You see we did not do all the stuff that the new ‘reformers’ think is vital to improve our schools. We did not fire the staff, eliminate tenure, or go to pay based on test scores. We did not become a charter school. We did not take away control from a locally elected school board and give it to a mayor. We did not bring in a bunch of two-year short-term teachers.

Nope, we did not do any of these things. Because we knew they would not work.

There is no evidence that firing staffs and using the turn around strategies that failed when Secretary Duncan was in charge of Chicago’s schools is suddenly going to work (here’s the evaluation from Duncan’s supervisors).

Tying teacher pay and tenure to scores on the current batch of narrowly constructed tests has never worked and will not, as Thomas Hilton, former researcher at the Educational Testing Service notes, work now.

Charter schools do not do any better than good old public schools. And there is no evidence that eliminating democratic involvement with our schools through elected school boards improves educational opportunities for kids. (I cannot do better than Diane Ravitch on these.)

While I applaud the commitment of the young people who see things like Teach for America as a way to serve the nation, it is a shame that we think the best we can do for kids in our most challenged communities is a steady diet of inexperienced short term teachers. (And it might not be all that effective, according to a new report examining the academic achievement of students under the instruction of TFA staff.)

So would somebody please explain to me why the new reform agenda is made up of so many unproven or failed strategies? Everywhere I turn the mantra is the same—fire teachers, close schools, start charters. Even from people who should know better.

One more thing, I also find it interesting that some of the more powerful pushers of these ideas are the so-called titans of Wall Street—the Broad Foundation, Bill Gates of late, and Democrats for Education Reform (a bunch of well-funded venture capitalists). Hey, private capital did such a great job with the economy (and oil wells) why not turn over our public schools to them?

While legislators and opinion writers seem to have drunk deeply from the ‘reform’ Kool-Aid, I believe the people who work with kids at the school level know better.

What we know is this.

To turn around a school and keep that success going requires educational leadership committed to through teacher assessment and support—I have fired tenured teachers and worked to expand the skills of every teacher in our building. And in turn my staff has taught me more than a few things about leadership and professional development.

To make sure every young person learns means constant reassessment of the curriculum, multiple measures of student achievement, and support systems throughout the school. We cannot rely on the archaic standardized tests we today use to judge student learning as they dumb down and narrow curriculum. And we must make sure that every student has equal access to the conditions to learn in every school.

To have every student rise to his/her potential we must use our communities, through internships, mentoring, and, yes, school boards that hold educators accountable to the local community.

I know this is no longer thought of as reform. And as I get ready to shake the sweaty hands of my 18th graduating class, I have to admit to being part of the educational establishment. But would somebody please explain to me how the success of my staff, and many schools just like ours, is no longer of value to a nation that seems to still want a good public education system?

Maybe we just don’t have a good press agent.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Wayne's Day

The Sunday before Memorial Day was Wayne’s day.

It was the day he graduated from our school. A day he did not think would come. But a day he made happen—and we helped.

Wayne came to me last summer and asked could he please come to our school. Eighteen, having been pushed out of his school in northern Ohio, he had moved in with a girl friend in the area.

He was wearing his best tee shirt, his smudged glasses set askew on his face, as he earnestly asked me if he could come to school. He knew that because of his age we were not obligated to enroll him, but he was making his best pitch on what might be his last chance.

For the school it was a risk. He had not passed all the of Ohio state tests, he needed every single credit he could get, and we did not know him. The reason it was risky was that if we took in this young man and he did not graduate it would count against us on our school report card. He could lower our graduation rate (we have fewer than 100 seniors so every one moves our graduation rate by more than one percentage point) that is part of the state’s accountability calculation. We would put our ranking and our reputation on the line by taking him.

But how could we turn him down? Isn’t this what schools are supposed to do—take in kids, care for them, teach them, try to graduate them?

So we took him, the guidance counselor and I took some time to get to know him, finding out what he was interested in and then secured a place for him in our career center—and he graduated on Sunday. He passed the tests, passed his courses, did what it took.

What worries me when I see Wayne is how many other kids do not find a school that will take him. Schools that know it would be the right thing to give him, and others like him, a chance—but feel they cannot do it because the risk is too great.

This one case illustrates clearly what is wrong with the current ‘hold schools accountable’ mantra. It holds them responsible for the wrong things.

Had we turned Wayne away, no one would have known, we would not have lost points on our state report card, and it would not have effected our federal accountability measures either. We took him, and it could have hurt us on all of these measures.

The system is simply wrong. It incentivizes the wrong things—and punishes schools for doing the right things. I know it is time to change it, but it seems that our leaders at both the state and national level have absolutely no clue.

But I am not worrying about that as I write this. Because Wayne graduated; in clothes that our bus supervisor and his partner bought for him after graduation practice and in a gown that my secretary secretly paid for.

It was Wayne’s day—and a good day for our school as well.