Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More Thoughts on School Reform

The Edchat topic tonight was school reform, which is a hot topic. If we have one thing to thank the Obama administration for is that education reform is the topic of the moment. I do not think you will find an educator anywhere who would say that schools are doing fine, and that reform is not necessary. I think the real problem is the starting point. Obviously, Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration have provided a starting point for discussion with the Race to the Top initiative. Whether or not we agree with the reform stipulations of that policy, it certainly has started a nation-wide conversation about making education better. In my twenty-one years as an educator, I can’t think of a time when so much is being said about education reform, it is literary possible to get lost in the rhetoric.

I think my position on Race to the Top and the ESEA Blueprint is clear from my previous posts on the topic, but honestly, I want to take a look at the reform proposals being pushed by the current presidential administration. I am going to set aside my personal feelings, and my preconceived notions about these reform measures and take a really close look at them. In the coming weeks, I am going to try to find every shred of evidence that supports the effectiveness of charter schools versus regular public schools. I am going to look closely at everything I can find about tying student test scores to teacher and principal evaluations. I am going to examine carefully anything I can find on these measures.

You know, in the end, if Secretary Duncan and President Obama have their way and my principal evaluations are tied to test scores, I can promise them one thing: I will have the best damn test-takers in the state and in the world. They will show phenomenal growth on any test thrown at them. As a classroom teacher I was not afraid of the state tests. In fact, I often had over 90% proficiency rates for my classes. If that is the kind of culture our schools get transformed into being, then I can assure all the education powers that be, I will have a school filled to the brim with phenomenal test takers.

As far as charters go, I have absolutely nothing against them. I know of two very effective charters close to my home town. I also know two others that have been close to being shut down. But I also know two phenomenal public schools that have the lowest drop out rates in the whole state and are highly proficient when looking at state test scores. I also know two low-scoring public schools that ought to be shut down. The point is, if it is honestly best for our kids, I can buy it, but please do not misrepresent the facts to promote charters or any other reform measure of the month without making a great case for it.

I have been an educator long enough to have lived through several reforms. Believe it or not, merit pay was the flavor of the month when I started teaching. I see it has come back around. I have seen “site-based management” practiced as well. Schools still pay a bit of homage to that one, though with all these strings running into the classroom, what we think as a site becomes less relevant. But that is Okay, because if it best for the kids, I can live with it. Let’s see, what other reforms have been thrown at me in the last twenty years? Oh yes, there was Tech Prep in the nineties, a movement to try to meet the needs of more students. There also was outcome based learning, multiple intelligence learning, whole language, block scheduling, and many, many others. In retrospect, what made real reform, real reform? Perhaps the answer lies in why so many high schools made the switch to block scheduling. I taught at a school during the transition to this type of scheduling. It was touted as being the vehicle to transform how our high schools do business. And what happened? Most high schools took what they had been doing with the fifty-five minute, six-class-a-day schedule and just made it ninety minutes long. Changing schedules is not enough. Now we find out the research about the effectiveness of block-scheduling is mixed at best.

Honestly, I did not mean to get sidetracked into my own nostalgia, but the truth is, there have been many an educational guru coming forth bearing the promises of reform during my years as educator, so naturally I am skeptical. One person in the Twitter edchat session tonight reminded of the one thing I have always believed to be true as a teacher and as a principal. The fads do come and go. Schools can be on block schedules or traditional calendars. Students can be in charter schools or regular public schools. But, whether that student learns or not is ruled by what that teacher does with that student during the short time they are together. True reform will begin in the hearts and minds of classroom teachers who care about kids. That is one reform that even Secretary Duncan can’t make happen.

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