School Reform: Yes, There Is Some Good News!

Summary: School reform is a long and often discouraging slog. This is a pause to celebrate the many hopeful events and trends that together refresh for the next round.

It is time to celebrate positives in the many headed effort to reform public education in the US. While the educational landscape is littered by pitched battles between factions at odds, and the composite picture too often seems directionless and characterized by modest progress at best, I am reminded that the successful reform efforts overseas took decades to bring to the fruition we admire today.

Within the general chaos, there are success stories and hopeful trends, borne of the energies of individuals and teams, and which burble up from the general cauldron.

The ferment itself is a good thing. Few districts, schools, or practitioners of all levels assume business as usual. So, I give another nod to No Child Left Behind, for having been the mainspring, though it has catapulted us into a purgatory like space within which we are still finding our bearings.……

The media are rife with reports from individual schools of innovation and improved test scores, even though NCLB dampens enthusiasm for these achievements by its unrealistic insistence on continuing year by year improvement to predetermined arrival points. As an example of good news, my own former school, distinguished by a hardworking staff and the tenacity of its administration, but also encumbered by the top down flavor typical of many bureaucratically encrusted school districts, won some well-deserved state of Washington plaudits despite the liabilities. Equally to the point, 380 other schools in the state earned similar plaudits.

Though there seems to have been continued gnashing of teeth at each new year of NAEP national testing results, which in part compare American students to their international counterparts, the ever interesting Diane Ravitch on her blog a year ago took the long view to point out, among other positive trends, that fourth grade black students who were rated “below basic” dropped from 80% of the tested population in 1992 to 49% in 2011. While the 49% is sobering enough, the substantial long term improvement brings to mind the march of the Finns and the Polish to their current high skills status over thirty or forty years. Patience, perseverance, and hope are the orders of the day.

The ongoing Stanford CREDO charter study in its 2013 iteration reports charter results are improving to the point they match the record of the traditional public schools with which they are being compared. Renewed calls, including by President Obama, to axe charters that perform poorly, as originally intended, will make charters as a group look more successful.

Eruptions of teacher and union activism in reform and examples of heightened teacher input to decision making at the school and district level encourage me….. In an article in the Harvard Ed Letter (“The Push for Progressive Unionism”), Erika Hobbs outlines some of the forces that are making for improved union-management collaboration; the impetus comes from both sides of the divide….  In my own back yard reform minded leadership has emerged in the Seattle Teachers Union, and an offshoot of Seattle teacher/reformers called Teachers United has poked its head into the conversation….. Tim Walker in NEA Today reports on unionizing efforts in a Los Angeles charter school initiated by staff who have felt their school drifting from its original mission and wish to influence future decision making (“NEA Steps Up Organizing Efforts in Non-Union Charter Schools.”) …….In Houston, where Houston schools recently were named recipient of a Broad Education Prize for Urban Education for improvement in student achievement and a reduction of the usual achievement gaps, Houston school officials cited site based decision making as one key to raising test scores, because it allows “teachers and administrators more flexibility in managing their schools and addressing student needs.” (Alyssa Morones in Education Week – “Houston Schools win Broad Education Prize”)

In the same category is a recent editorial in the Seattle Times extolling progress in the newly negotiated contract between the Seattle Teachers’ Union and the Seattle School District. Improved pay was part of the package, but also an apparently sophisticated teacher evaluation system that utilizes “multiple measures of performance” that may well reflect the teacher-in-the-trenches view of what is essential to quality teaching.

The same editorial page reports that poorly rated teachers are leaving the Seattle district at an increased rate, even under the earlier installment of the teacher evaluation process. (Jonathan Martin – “Bad Teachers Shouldn’t Be Forced on Our Kids”) While some types might grimace at the threat of exit, in each school it is generally known who the less productive teachers are, and as long as the process is fair, I for one would welcome a more streamlined scrutiny of whether or not a few of my former colleagues should remain in the classroom, and if they were stay, under what plan of improvement.

In other good news, the Gates Foundation has begun reassessing some of its head butting with teachers and unions and has ramped up rapprochement efforts, as reported by Linda Shaw in the Seattle Times. Together we stand or divided we fall, or something like that.

Experiments in technology to further individual skill development have proven successful in diverse settings, from parent testimony about the Khan Academy, an online library of video tutorials, to the wide use of increasingly sophisticated individualized software to supplement classroom skills instruction, particularly in math.

Legislative agitation and court action, for example in Washington and Colorado, have increased funding for schools. In Washington, as reported by Donna Gordon Blankenship in the Seattle Times, the coalition that brought suit successfully against the state for its failure to fully fund public education, as stipulated by the state constitution, is readying for another round of legal action. While the state legislature found a reported one billion dollars in additional funding in the current school year, some of that was budgetary sleight of hand, and in any event remains inadequate, the plaintiffs will allege.… The bottom line, more money will be needed to bring the Washington State public education success rate to a satisfactory level; much of that money should be targeted toward increasing the teacher/student ratio – that is, promote more intensive human intervention – for low income students.

These are disparate events, initiatives, and data points in the stream which together stitch together some reason for optimism for the progress of our schools. How is it that these small and often subtle pieces get lost in the sometimes vituperative macro debates between factions that paradoxically seek the same arrival point? It is too facile to point the finger at the media, who do in fact love to report on a good fight. More to the point is probably the dangerous degree to which the public arena has become polarized; we have all become actors in the cultural dysfunction.

But that worry can remain for another day. Today, we celebrate these many reasons to hoist the glass.

ADDENDUM

In my mind there are quarters of silence, arenas crucial to the reform of schools as I imagine it, but about which I at least see too little reference in the various media I reference. For example, if teachers are to become the power actors in school once again, how then are teacher training programs radically shifting to prepare these new “teacherpreneurs,” as some have dubbed them?

Equally to the point, how are administrator training programs reforming themselves? More specifically, as teachers in fact agitate for more power, as professionals, will the new generation of principals and superintendents create the flat organizations that welcome and use teacher input, even expect teachers to agitate for power seats at the decision making table?

These are complimentary roles, teacher and administrator, that need to be crafted to fit together.

 

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