Wednesday’s AP article, “Thousands of failing schools face major overhaul,” reveals many of the challenges involved with school change and high stakes accountability. Instructional challenges and opportunities for students really are the key. As one principal quoted in the article notes:

The instruction wasn’t happening,” [Denise] Hallett said, offering an explanation for poor test scores, high dropout rates and gang violence [at her New York school]. “You’ve got to make changes in the teaching, so that you have wonderful things that are happening inside the classroom.”

There is no doubt the level of expectations, the complexity, and the level of student engagement in many classrooms needs to rise. Getting teachers in those contexts to change is the $100 million dollar challenge.

Using high-stakes tests to force schools (and specifically the teachers and administrators in schools) to change is fraught with problems, however. By placing so much emphasis on individual test scores, schools and the learners in them often become myopic about the subjects tested, sometimes ignoring other vital activities for development and well rounded education… like recess and the arts. Again according to the article:

Superintendent Deasy acknowledges the atmosphere at Arrowhead is more intense than at schools that aren’t facing restructuring. He said lessons at schools missing testing goals have to be very targeted, and he says there often isn’t time for electives and free play like at other schools.

Our schools DO need to make changes. The key question, however, is “What kind of changes?” The school paradigm we’ve inherited from the industrial revolution is not broadly serving us well, since it generally serves up a “one size fits all” model of education. I agree with the following statement from the article:

“These are schools where there are some significant problems,” Briggs said. “Without more serious action, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve gotten.”

Of course that statement is true: Insanity is defined as doing what has always been done and expecting different results.

When it comes to school change and increasing student achievement, however, most of the proposals I’ve seen for “restructuring” schools in accordance with NCLB involve more fear, bigger sticks, and generally a more repressive learning environment for both teachers and students. As Susan Ohanian noted recently, many schools with approved “Reading First” pedagogical approaches to literacy require teachers to follow a rigid script day in and day out. Gary Stager’s post from June 3rd, “What’s the Difference Between School and Prison?” reveals the harshly authoritarian nature of many school cultures. How can learners of any age thrive in environments which are often oppressive and bent on both control and behavior modification via fear, rather than empowerment and invitations to learning?

What are the solutions for the poorest and most challenged schools in the United States, which Jonathan Kozol has called “The Shame of the Nation?” Making our schools more like prisons? Upping the ante of stress and fear? Insuring that teachers who came to the educational profession full of idealism and passion for kids will continue to head for the doors en masse, creating an enormous teacher retention problem which leads some school districts to further lower standards for emergency certification and teacher preparation?

This AP article begins with the following observation:

Nationwide, about 2,300 schools are either in restructuring or are a year away and planning for such drastic action as firing the principal and moving many of the teachers, according to a database provided to The Associated Press by the Education Department.

Why are we, the citizens of the United States, apparently buying the unproven and unwarranted assumption of statements like this, that “the principal and the teachers are the problem?” Maybe the problem is the SYSTEM. The very structure of our industrial-age model schools, which places students in most cases in neat rows and requires them to sit down, shut up, listen and passively absorb information from a lecturing teacher and a provided textbook is a big part of the problem as well. Most teachers prior to the 21st century defined themselves as “expert” sources of information and knowledge on the subject(s) they taught. With the wealth of information and connections to other experts now available via the web, that definition is no longer appropriate. We’ve got to redefine WHO a teacher is. That means we also need to redefine what a LEARNING ENVIRONMENT looks like. We need to redefine what SCHOOLS look like, and what they sound like. The idea that learning should and must start and end when the school bell rings is ridiculous. That inheritance from the industrial era factory, as well as our traditional conception of GRADES, have to be rethought and redesigned for the 21st century. This is a tall order and more than any single person or small group of people could hope to accomplish. Yet this is our challenge in designing school 2.0.

No one I’ve ever met has gone through a teacher education program and learned: “Lecture is the best, and worksheets every day are the best way to ensure learning.” Yet this “back to basics” and “let’s forcefeed worksheets to everyone 24/7” sort of approach to learning is unfortunately common, rather than rare, in many schools labeled “failing” or underperforming by NCLB. According to this article:

It was around 2 p.m., shortly before the school day was to end, and a time when elementary-age students might typically be playing tag, working on craft projects or just easing into the end of the academic day. But at Arrowhead, a school in the restructuring planning stage, math worksheets were on the desks, kids were sounding out vowels and special ed teachers were working with small groups of children.

As we look to restructure schools, I encourage leaders to truly consider RESTRUCTURING. Change the bell schedule. State legislators: Pay schools not for the seat time of students, but for demonstrated student performance in authentic assessments the learners can’t fake. Ask students to not merely learn material and regurgitate it properly for a test, but instead create authentic knowledge products which both engage and challenge students to deeper levels of analysis and inquiry. Measuring learning not simply by the results on a bubble sheet, but also by the conversations ignited by the learning environment and learning culture which teachers and students collaborate to create.

It’s so easy to teach and lead poorly. And it is equally easy to “restructure” schools ineffectually by looking entirely to past, “traditional” pedagogic models of learning, rather than looking at actual research, the ideas of educational leaders like Dewey, Freire and Papert, our present educational conditions and looking to the future.

I heard recently (somewhere at EduComm) that the predominant technology tends to define the most common learning activities in the classroom. Since pencils and paper predominate in most of our classrooms, worksheets continue to be the norm. If all our students have laptops instead of just pencils, certainly the types of educational activities which predominate could change. Schools don’t have to have laptops, however, for teachers to challenge students to actively learn and engage in ongoing, authentic assessment. That requires educational leadership from principals as well as teachers, but it also begs for an EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM supportive of real restructuring and change, not just “more of the traditional paradigm” with bigger sticks for punishment and more threats for everyone involved in the educational process.

Let’s reject the fear-laden strategies of school change which are predominating today, and explore ways we can TRULY restructure schools and the learning experience for students. To do this, we need real leaders to step forward and make a difference. Sadly, the simplistic approach of NCLB has not helped to move us forward in the school reform movement we need for the digital 21st century. But we need not give up hope. Tomorrow a new day will dawn, and there is always hope for change in the face of a bright new sun.


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2 Responses to Could the SYSTEM be to blame instead of teachers and principals?

  1. Mrs. Durff says:

    Action plan time! I agree we need something, but what? How are we going to reconcile the childcare needs of parents (which is how they view school), the goals of teachers/admin, and the needs of the students? Is “school” going to be something we do to them or something in which they have a say or…..?

  2. Tim Holt says:

    I remember when I was in teacher education, i had a professor that said if 25 or more % of the students fail., the test was to blame, not the students.
    I wonder of that is true for state tests as well?

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