We Have A Failed School System, Not Failed Schools: Can Principals Learn to Support Teachers and Create Professional Learning Communities? Or, Will the Gorgons Devour Us?

 The basketball coach looked distraught,
“What’s the matter?”
“Report cards just came out, one of my best players is ineligible*.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Guess I’m going to have to coach better.”
  (The 4+1 Rule-A student must pass four credit bearing subjects (not four credits) and physical education, if taken, in the most recent final marking period (January or June). An eligible student-athlete must pass four credit bearing subjects and physical education the marking period closest to December 1st or April 15th to continue his/her eligibility … Entering freshmen (first year in grade 9) are academically eligible until the 2nd report card is issued.)
If a school is moving toward closing, becoming “ineligible,” have you ever heard a chancellor, a network leader, a principal or a teacher say, “guess I’m going to have to coach (i.e., lead, support, teach), better?
We have a failed system not failed schools.
Schools have been identified as “failing” schools since the late 80s, the State Education Department (SED) began to identify schools as Schools Under Registration Review (SURR), schools in danger of being closed. A State team spent three days in the school observing all classes, interviewing the entire school community, reviewing data, formal and informal records and on the fourth day reported their findings to the entire staff. A few months later a detailed report was issued following an SED rubric with specific findings and recommendations.  At the end of the SURR cycle the SED issued a summary of all the SURR reports, leading the list of the reasons for school failure was lack of leadership, at the school and district levels.
In the second decade of the 21st century very little has changed, (“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”). We close “failing” schools and open small schools in the same building and watch them ever so slowly turn themselves into failing schools. The Center for New York City Affairs June, 2009 report points to the pros and cons of the large school closings,
  • Attendance and graduation rates are higher at new small schools than at the large schools they replaced. Principals and students report the new schools are safer. Yet many small schools remain fragile, with attendance and graduation rates declining. (See “Handle with Care“)
  • As the city closed the lowest-performing large schools to make way for small schools, thousands of students, including many new immigrants and children with special education needs, were diverted to the remaining large schools. Many of those schools suffered overcrowding and declining attendance and graduation rates. Some were subsequently closed. (See “A Case of Collateral Damage“)
  • Twenty-six of 34 large high schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx saw their enrollments jump significantly as other high schools were closed. Of these, 19 saw their attendance decline and 15 saw their graduation rates decline between the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2007. Fourteen saw both attendance and graduation rates decline.
  • Thousands of students have been assigned to schools they did not choose or that are not appropriate for their educational needs. Students are assigned to schools up to 90 minutes from home, each way, by bus or subway. The more extensive the system of school choice, the more it sorts children into those who can navigate the admissions process and those who cannot.

In spite of the lessons learned in the Chancellor’s District (see evaluations here  and here)  struggling and new schools, in fact, all schools, are “on their own.” They voluntarily choose networks and the decisions are solely those of the principal. Bad decisions, lack of principal experience, poor relationships with the staff, so be it, only the datum determines the success/failure of the school. Intervention is not an alternative. The Chancellor’s District was successful due to a complex web of specific supports and levels of accountability.

This year State Ed has targeted 25 schools for possible closing, many long established and some created under Bloomberg auspices. Some have had frequent changes in school leadership, others serve extremely poor families, have large numbers of students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Many fall in the bottom few percentiles of schools city-wide, four received a “B” on their Progress Report. The State and the DOE use different metrics to measure school success/failure.

The primary reason for school failure, evidenced by years of State Education SURR summary reports is the absence of effective leadership. The DOE decision to recruit school leaders with no prior supervisory experience and limited teaching experience is disastrous. Too frequently school principals mechanically observe the “teaching” side of the process, however, have no understanding that education is the “teaching-learning” process. Principals who were not highly effective teachers do not understand that effective teaching is not formulaic. Lessons may be technically “correct,” but boring.

The DOE leaves the evaluation/assessment of the “teaching” portion of the equation to the principal and measures the “learning” portion through the summative assessment, i.e., the State tests.

Master teachers engage students and measure “learning” in small increments, a number of times in each lesson, commonly referred to as formative assessment .

Students report ,  “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” and, “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class.”

Mike Schmoker has written extensively about the inherent failure of top-down, imposed “reform,” and points to the essential importance of bottom-up, collaborative teaching,

… the most productive thinking is continuous and simultaneous with action — that is, with teaching — as practitioners collaboratively implement, assess, and adjust instruction as it happens.
Effective teachers must see themselves not as passive, dependent implementers of someone else’s script but as active members of research teams — as “scientists who continuously develop their intellectual and investigative effectiveness.”
Historically, reform has had only the most negligible impact on “the central work of the school: instruction.” To remedy this situation, we must replace complex, long-term plans with simpler plans that focus on actual teaching lessons and units created in true “learning communities” that promote team-based, short-term thought and action.
How many schools support “professional learning communities”? How many principals structure schools to create space for teachers to collaborate? How many principals are master teachers, of teachers?
As the DOE moves toward adopting an iteration of Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Learning we must ask: Do principals have the requisite skills to implement the Danielson Frameworks?
Cathie Black has inherited a failed school system burdened with layers of “reforms” that impede change. No matter the depth of the data, the complexity of the checklist, the number of Stanford MBAs, change comes from clusters of teachers who share/adjust their practice, on a daily basis, reflecting the actual kids in front of them in the classroom.
Changing seniority rules, making it easier to deny tenure and fire teachers, to constantly engage the union in combat weakens and disempowers the employer and chases away the most dedicated and competent employees.
Chancellor-nominee Black has an opportunity to refocus, if she chooses simply to pursue the Klein course the sixteen hundred schools and million plus youngsters will fall prey to Stheno and Euryale, the gorgons of mythology.

3 responses to “We Have A Failed School System, Not Failed Schools: Can Principals Learn to Support Teachers and Create Professional Learning Communities? Or, Will the Gorgons Devour Us?

  1. Please, let us take a step back, take a deep breath, and evaluate the situation. We all have the same goal: To better prepare students for the 21st century workplace. But it seems that everyone has their ideas and no one is listening to one another. Ideas from closing down public schools, firing administrators, pouring more money into the system, to opening more charter schools. Improving the educational system starts in the classroom, not in Washington, not in the theoretical views of the educational experts in the ivory towers, and not with the private billionaires. It starts with the realization that we need to focus on skills that will prepare our students to be ready for post-secondary opportunities. It starts with restructuring all core classes around the Common Core. It begins with teachers working together creating units of study around literacy skills. It means wiping mindless content off the table. It’s a promise from teacher preparation courses to move into the 21st century mindset and revamp their way of preparing teacher-candidates. I ask for the change agents in the classrooms to move from the status quo mindset and change; change for the youth that we must prepare to be the leaders of this great nation.


  2. Jackie Foil Retired

    How many of the reforms that we initiated in the late 80’s and that worked are still in place – like mentoring and smaller class size for students with specific learning challenges? I do NOT mean special education. I know that mentoring worked for helping teachers and in turn, their students. The statistics showed that teachers were more like to stay if mentoring occurred. I was doing my doctoral thesis on the affects of mentoring teachers. All the conclusions were positive.


  3. jonah miilligan

    i think what bothers me the most about this post is it is from a teacher or an administrator or maybe even a principal’s point of view. but hardly anyone ever takes it from the point of view of a teenager attending the one of many “failing” school’s. it is not about the money put into the school, but yet that the children inside of the school are so bored that when given a chance to work on a computer for an assignment, most of them will go to games. if you block the game sites we will strive just as hard to find a new one. your right that it has been declining since the 80’s. you want to know why? because of the internet. there are just to many distractions and it doesnt help that more and more of the classes are online work. last year i knew very few people that were taking a class online. but this school year i know to many. all of these kids are taking online classes to get away from the regular class rooms, all the structure, so that way the can have a little bit of fun. most of them are only taking about 1 class online. i am taking 3 and let me tell you it is certainly harder than school. if i could i would change back to normal schedule but given the school if i tried to do that i would just get into a class that is to far ahead for me to even understand what is going on. i miss the teachers going over what we were learning in class. but do you want to know what i miss most of all. the social interaction with friends which was already very short because if we so much as take out are phone in class, unless the teacher is cool, it will be confiscated, and talking isnt allowed which is why we text. once teachers start to understand that maybe they will finally let us just text because texting unless it is a long message, does not take very much of our time and it certainly doesnt take the teachers time.


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