Wednesday, September 29, 2010

School Improvement: What's the Answer?
If only there was a single answer, right? Every year we get new approaches that seem to yield promising results, but that ultimately don't last, or don't translate from school school. Even more importantly, we don't have much agreement on the basics, like: What's the purpose of public education? and How do we measure progress and achievement?

The truth is, if there were *one simple structural thing* that need only be implemented to create a nation full of eager, well-educated, well-adjusted high school graduates, we would have figured it out, and everyone would be doing it. As it is, even trying to learn from the apparent successes of others seems difficult.

Still, I can't resist the occasional feel-good success story of a down-and-out school that, at the very least, experiences vast improvement. Yesterday's NYTimes tells of Brockton High School in Mass. At 4,100 students, Brockton is not only the largest in the state, it's one of the largest in the nation. With a high drop-out rate, and only a quarter of students passing the statewide exams 10 years ago, teachers and administrators - motivated mostly by shame - devised a new approach: reading and writing would be emphasized in each and every class.
The committee put together a rubric to help teachers understand what good writing looks like, and began devoting faculty meetings to teaching department heads how to use it. The school’s 300 teachers were then trained in small groups.

Writing exercises took many forms, but encouraged students to think methodically. A science teacher, for example, had her students write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich, starting with opening the cupboard to fetch the peanut butter, through washing the knife once the sandwich was made. Other writing exercises, of course, were much more sophisticated.

Some teachers dragged their feet. Michael Thomas, now the district’s operations director but who led the school’s physical education department at the time, recalled that several of his teachers told him, “This is gym; we shouldn’t have to teach writing.” Mr. Thomas said he replied, “If you want to work at Brockton High, it’s your job.”
Read the whole thing. Gains sound substantial there (though they had a long way to go), and the pride taken in improvement seems to have propelled the entire school even further. Anything here that can be used by other struggling schools, or entire school systems?  Who knows.


red storm said...

Don, hope to weigh back in on this when I have time to give it more thought. Here in DC, we're in the midst of the whole post-reform thing, with Chancellor Michelle Rhee, outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty, and his loss to Vince Gray. it was ugly, and school reform was at the center of it.

Don said...

Yeah I've been watching that - she's big news everywhere. Curious about your take.