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NCLB Outrages

Three keys to schools that work

Ohanian Comment: To say that all but a a tiny percentage of special-education and limited-English students can reach proficiency, sure depends on what you mean by proficiency.

by Julia Steiny

Even back then, the excellent 1989 middle-school manifesto Turning Points had all the right stuff for transforming our middle schools from the academic flat-liners they are into exciting, high-performing, warm learning cultures. Many of its recommendations are precisely the best practices that charter schools have since implemented, with excellent results.

Despite the Carnegie Corporation's huge financial investment in grants to schools willing to apply their manifesto's recommendations, Turning Points' middle-school movement flagged.

The take-home lessons from the failure of the Carnegie initiative are critical if we want to create schools that are not just high-performing, but also pleasant, caring places to teach and learn. Carnegie's ideas were radically right, but not quite sufficient.

The reasons Turning Points failed to take hold firmly are twofold, and each teaches us a critical lesson about schools in general. First, the recommendations involve a radical restructuring. Implementing them fully dismantles the familiar, old factory-school model where achievement was exclusively the job of the kid and not the responsibility of the school. Factory schools have always been willing to accept a large numbers of casualties, a.k.a. dropouts. Precisely because of the radical nature of the Carnegie recommendations -- details below -- schools tended to implement them piecemeal, in dribs and drabs, in a process so drawn out over time that few schools ever achieved whole-school reform. Transforming existing structures is infinitely harder than starting from scratch, which is why the charter schools have had more success.

Secondly, our current passion for accountability grew slowly until it was slammed into warp drive by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. In spite of its flaws, NCLB has shone a welcome light on heretofore-forgotten groups of students, as well as lighting a fire under schools to work seriously to get every child to proficiency.

When first passed, NCLB met with fierce resistance whose main theme was that all kids could not, in fact, reach proficiency (which is probably true for a tiny percentage of special-education and limited-English students). More importantly, that resistance reflected the low expectations of many school systems content to do what they'd always been doing, since their failure to produce results suffered no consequences.

The pervasive culture of low expectations eventually doomed the otherwise excellent middle-school reform movement.

Turning Points first introduced me to what I now consider to be the three structural changes necessary to transform any secondary school from a factory-bureaucracy into a warm, high-functioning learning community. They are: school autonomy, personalization and common planning time.

School autonomy is about getting out from underneath meddling bureaucracies. It shifts all relevant decision-making from the top Central Office down to the school and classroom, where the people who best know the kids, their community and their issues have the power to make and adjust school policy. Autonomous schools, like private and charter schools, know they must produce results one student at a time, or they go out of business. To get those results, the school community has to work together by discussing and agreeing, as much as possible, on the nature of their problems, the possible solutions, their priorities, the best ways to implement changes and so forth.

Autonomous, self-governing schools depend on the whole school community talking together to examine data, allocate the budget, hire, support and discipline their staff, hone course offerings and develop a positive school culture. District offices should support and facilitate their work. This all seems like a well, duh, except that unions and upper management resist giving up their power to the worker bees at the schools.

Personalization is the practice of making sure that each child is known well by at least one adult in the building. Frankly, it's stunning to think that anyone thought you could successfully educate a group of children without knowing each one. But the factory-model school was content just to blame the kid for not learning. Now schools must investigate what's getting in the way of learning if and when learning lags. The most efficient way to know kids is with small-group advisories -- where a teacher or staff member shepherds 12 to 15 kids through however many years they're in the building. Advisories are the only way to guarantee every single child is well known. And only advisories give parents a convenient, personal portal into what can otherwise seem like a bureaucratic maze.

So: school autonomy has the school community talking together as a whole; advisories have the teachers talking with kids and triangulating with their families. Common planning time has the teachers talking to each other. Teachers working together are the heart and circulatory system of a responsive school.

Sadly, common planning time was the shoal on which the middle-school model finally shipwrecked. When Carnegie money was flowing, the main perk it bought in many schools was the release of teachers from a period of teaching every day. This was incredibly expensive. Most importantly, without the pressure of accountability, that wealth of time was devoted mainly to improving the school climate -- and indeed it did improve. Typically, Carnegie schools experienced fewer discipline referrals, more collaboration, better relations with parents and community, and so forth. But good school climate, as it turns out, is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing robust academic results.

Mind you, the teachers were charged with a number of specific and potentially performance-enhancing tasks -- for example, case-managing those kids who were falling behind, or who needed more challenge or who seemed troubled in some way. They consulted with specialists and worked to make the curriculum more engaging to kids, etc. Some teacher teams used the time well. Many did not. Principals had little control over how the time was used. And with no one standing over them ready to impose public sanctions if the kids weren't making measurable gains in their test scores, academic results were modest. Back then, schools seemed to shrug and say: "Well, what can you expect from these kids?"

So when the money ran out and school committees found little or no academic improvement, the teachers' planning period was gone.

Interestingly, NCLB has revived the practice of common planning time precisely because teacher collaboration is by far your best bet for improving achievement. But these days, in those schools lucky enough to figure out how to get it at all, planning time is often just one or two periods a week, cobbled together by very creative scheduling. Strapped, contemporary school budgets can't possibly afford to have every teacher take one less class. When well-focused, though, even only one or two periods can produce excellent results.

Sadly, NCLB's drive for accountability has become such a big deal that struggling schools are starting to become miserable places to teach and learn. The same number of kids are dropping out, but doing so earlier, and more parents are putting their kids into private schools.

Clearly we need humanized, professional, non-factory schools that are also accountable to help every child become proficient. No school should have to choose between becoming a creative place to teach and learn, or working to raise achievement. We need both, together in one building.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at juliasteiny [at] cox.net or c/o EdWatch, Education and Employment, Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.

— Julia Steiny
Providence Journal


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