The problem is not the school


The problem is not the school.


Every school in America is, will be or was a failing school at one point in time in its history. Every school is not the same school it was the day before. Every school in America has gone through the turbulence of a change in the principal, a cut in the budget or a shift in priorities. And every school in America wrestles with complex challenges like giving tests written in English to students who just arrived from their native countries six months ago, and every school in America struggles to give adequate services to students with special needs, children who have been historically denied access to basic resources, children living in poverty (not to mention children living in abusive households).

Yet this is America—a nation of people whose ancestors were either dragged here by force and treated very badly, or whose ancestors were so ruggedly idealistic that they chose an uncertain future and a month of vomiting over herding goats for the rest of their lives in the early morning shadow of Mussolini— so we either suffer these facts daily, screaming to a deaf audience, or try to forget them all together by dwelling in the optimism of real estate futures, Mercedes Benz in the face of climate change, and children named “North.” (Or just some good wine and cheese in front of a fire at Christmas).

The school thing we have all wrong, and I find it troubling that the majority of education jobs in this country are predicated on a blind belief otherwise. With policy changes, leadership and teacher turnover and constant churn in the student population, a school is simply brick and mortar.

It’s time to change the conversation.

“It Sort of Woke Me Up”
Listening to this Science Friday “teacher feature” story –and in particular to Tom Carlson in the garden with his students– I heard the intangible essence at the core of excellent teaching. There is an ontological or essential nature to this teacher’s way of speaking and acting that seems indicative of a tremendous capacity to inspire learning–at least for some students. This capacity is one that most of today’s teacher evaluation rubrics are not designed to measure. Is it as essential for meaningful knowledge creation as pedagogical content knowledge, assessment proficiency or classroom management skills.

On the other hand, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today entitled “Smooth lectures only foster the illusion of learning, study finds” suggests that affect doesn’t matter. But is inspiration the difference between fluid and dynamic and choppy and boring, or is it something else altogether?

The elephant in the room

A common metaphor heard in schools is “the elephant in the room”– the issue everyone knows its there, but no one has the guts to name. Sometimes that elephant is important feedback for the whole school, for school leadership, or for individual teachers. Unfortunately, schools are ideal places for people to keep their thoughts and feelings under wraps. The basic design of schools is structured for autonomy and isolation, so teachers and administrators do not get a lot of practice. Or sometimes people worry (rightfully) about being punished for telling the truth about something.

Also, negative feedback is often hard to give. It means telling someone (to their face), “I do not like how you are doing that, and here’s why.”  We worry what they’ll think of us for saying it, think about our own shortcomings and bite our tongues, and note that few people seem to listen to advice anyway. The western cultural emphasis on the individual means we think of people’s behavior as coming from an innate and fixed part of their personality, identity, or experiences.  People who come from different backgrounds, people with different belief systems, and especially different generations will disagree about how to handle everything from discipline to curriculum design.

Unfortunately, failure to name the elephant, provide authentic feedback or debate differences keeps organizations locked in what scholar Chris Argyris called “organizational defensive routines.”   These patterns of behavior keep schools stuck–they prevent innovation by stifling learning and creativity. Learning means being honest about thoughts and feelings, but in a way that is generative rather than harmful.   As schools and districts move to implement teacher evaluation systems, organizational health and happiness (and therefore learning) will depend on getting this right.

90/90/90 Schools- Myth or reality?

The belief in school improvement as possibility is fueled by research about “effective schools” including those known colloquially as 90/90/90 schools. These are a group of schools studied by Douglas Reeves and colleagues (of the Leadership and Learning Center) because they seem to have unusual success (90 percent+ meet high academic standards) with their students– unusual because 90+ percent receive free/reduced lunch, and are ethnic/racial minorities.

90/90/90 success stories and strategies are appealing because they remind us that race/poverty do not always correlate perfectly with academic performance and give educators agency and responsibility for helping to ameliorate the academic achievement gap.

But they are problematic for many reasons, some of which are nicely addressed here: 90/90/90 Schools Revisited (Edweek)

One of the problems with “90/90/90 schools” is that they can make improvement seem complex and mysterious, requiring coaching and consultation for sustainable success.

What happens in 90/90/90 schools is not mysterious. In many cases, “school improvement” can be boiled down to making improvements in the these three things:

  1. The level and nature of academic language use among students and within classrooms, particularly in writing and speaking.
  2. The level and nature of talk about student performance and progress among adults, including looking and at discussing student work and performance expectations; and
  3. The tone of the conversation through which these things are communicated (striking the right balance between fun, professional and respectful).

If and when these three things are difficult, complex or impossible to cultivate or accomplish, there are probably big barriers in the way. Some of these barriers- like leadership and teacher turnover, conflicting curricular programs and materials and fluctuating resources–may not be within the school community’s control. Examining and removing each one (and doing this regularly, as they reoccur) is critical for sustainable improvement. Remember that just because 90 percent proficient happened in some places does not mean the conditions are right for it to happen in all places.