Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Real Reform on Front Page of NY Times - HUH?

Yes, kiddies, on the very front page of the NY Times we see some example of Real Reformers at work at the giant Brockton HS in Massachusettes. (4,100 Students Prove ‘Small Is Better’ Rule Wrong.)

It took real teachers without interference from administrators. Union teachers who followed the contract to a tee. And one of these teachers became the principal instead of the 30 day wonders who know nothing about education. And it has taken over a decade.
What makes Brockton High’s story surprising is that, with 4,100 students, it is an exception to what has become received wisdom in many educational circles — that small is almost always better.
That is why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade breaking down big schools into small academies (it has since switched strategies, focusing more on instruction).
The small-is-better orthodoxy remains powerful. A new movie, “Waiting for Superman,” for example, portrays five charter schools in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere — most with only a few hundred students — as the way forward for American schooling.
Brockton, by contrast, is the largest public school in Massachusetts, and one of the largest in the nation.
Ooooh! Is that a smash mouth directed at Bill and Melinda?
At education conferences, Dr. Szachowicz — who became Brockton’s principal in 2004 — still gets approached by small-school advocates who tell her they are skeptical that a 4,100-student school could offer a decent education.
“I tell them we’re a big school that works,“ said Dr. Szachowicz, whose booming voice makes her seem taller than 5-foot-6 as she walks the hallways, greeting students, walkie-talkie in hand.
She and other teachers took action in part because academic catastrophe seemed to be looming, Dr. Szachowicz and several of her colleagues said in interviews here. Massachusetts had instituted a new high school exit exam in 1993, and passing it would be required to graduate a decade later. Unless the school’s culture improved, some 750 seniors would be denied a diploma each year, starting in 2003.
 Wow! Teacher driven. And the teacher who led it became the principal.
Fear held some teachers back — fear of wasting time on what could be just another faddish reform, fear of a heavier workload — and committee members tried to help them surmount it.
“Let me help you,” was a response committee members said they often offered to reluctant colleagues who argued that some requests were too difficult.
Brockton never fired large numbers of teachers, in contrast with current federal policy, which encourages failing schools to consider replacing at least half of all teachers to reinvigorate instruction.
You mean they didn't fire the entire staff? What would Obama/Duncan say?
Teachers unions have resisted turnaround efforts at many schools. But at Brockton, the union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract.
An example: the contract set aside two hours per month for teacher meetings, previously used to discuss mundane school business. The committee began dedicating those to teacher training, and made sure they never lasted a minute beyond the time allotted.
“Dr. Szachowicz takes the contract seriously, and we’ve worked together within its parameters,” said Tim Sullivan, who was president of the local teachers union through much of the last decade. 
Union rules strictly followed. My goodness.

So why not try a radical idea? See what students think:
..the school retained all varsity sports, as well as its several bands and choruses, extensive drama program and scores of student clubs.
Many students consider the school’s size — as big as many small colleges — and its diverse student body (mostly minority), to be points in its favor, rather than problems.
“You meet a new person every day,” said Johanne Alexandre, a senior whose mother is Haitian. “Somebody with a new story, a new culture. I have Pakistani friends, Brazilians, Haitians, Asians, Cape Verdeans. There are Africans, Guatemalans.
“There’s a couple of Americans, too!” Tercia Mota, a senior born in Brazil, offered. “But there aren’t cliques. Take a look at the lunch table.”
“You can’t say, those are the jocks, those are the preppy cheerleaders, those are the geeks,” Ms. Mota said. “Everything is blended, everybody’s friends with everyone.”
 So, let's sum up: unionized teachers, contract followed, experienced teacher in same school becomes school leader, takes a decade, teachers not fired but won over, large school with a full range of activities and services you can't find in small schools. And the kids seem to love it.

Now, here's my caveat. The article talks only about the narrow judgement through the lens of test scores and data. There's probably more to this story. I do believe it is possible to have an impact even when money remains the same. Due to the unique relationship between the teachers and the admin - one of them ended up leading the school - I believe it is absolutely crucial that teachers have a major role - along with parents - in choosing the school leader. As a matter of fact, though it is ignored in the article, it just may be the missing ingredient.

So, okay Bill Gates, let's funnel some of that cash for a true reform that would work- teachers and parents elect the principal.


  1. Actually most supporters of Ed "Deform" think that school and especially class size doesn't matter. I thought that was the Klonsky boys?

  2. I may disagree at times with Klonsky but the push there was for small schools. Certainly they have battled ed deformers rigorously.


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