Over the last few months hundreds of teachers have commented on the Gotham Schools site about the unfairness of school closings as well as the schools selected as turnaround schools.
“We get the most difficult kids, overage, under credited, special education, English Language Learners, high poverty, it’s simply not fair, we’re being set up to fail.”
As you check the demographics the cries of teachers are justified, the so-called failing schools have large numbers of kids who are at risk.
Jackie Bennett, on the Edwize blog explains, in detail, how Progress Report grades track with student characteristics – see blogs here http://www.edwize.org/closing-schools-d-is-for-demographics and here http://www.edwize.org/d-is-for-demographics-part-ii-closing-schools-are-owed-an-apology-and-a-reprieve.
Although the Department has tweaked the Progress Report metrics, Rhonda Rosenberg shows us that the methodology is still biased against a category of schools. See detailed analysis here http://www.edwize.org/beware-of-bias-in-high-school-progress-report-cards
The Progress Report is the “report card,” the metric which assigns a school a numeric score which is converted to a letter grade from “A” to “F.” Schools are clustered into peer groups, schools with similar students. Similar means entering 8th grade State ELA/Math scores, special education and overage. Schools are assigned an index number and the peer group is the twenty schools immediately above and below your school. Schools are “competing” against other schools in their peer group – the metrics for high schools are credits accumulated each year, grades on Regents examinations and graduation rates. The formula takes into account achievement, growth, attendance and parent, teacher, student survey data.
As you look at a school’s peer group what strikes you is the wide disparity in grades. With kids with the same demographics some schools are getting “D” and “F” grades while other “A” and “B” grades. Why are some schools with similar kids stumbling and thriving?
Is it the teachers? (better instructional practices), the principal? (better leadership skills) or data management? (better abilities to fudge data – legally or illegally)
Cynics argue, “They cheat,” or, at least, the principal of one school can manipulate data better than the principal at another school. Guess we could have an interesting debate on whether the ability to manipulate data is a positive leadership skill. Let’s be honest: all principals operate at the edge of the rules, they try and manipulate data for the advantage of their school.
Do schools organize themselves in ways that maximize the chances of kids succeeding?
What do we know about the adolescent psyche?
Kids seek stability and direction and a strong positive role model in their lives.
Frequently they find the stability and the role model in an antisocial setting – the gang. Sometimes they find it in school.
In my experience schools with more fragile kids are more successful if they design themselves into structures that address the needs of the kids.
* Longer blocks of instruction with fewer periods in the school day, usually referred to as block scheduling, William Ouchi devoted a recent book to the topic, with dense statistics, showing greater academic success for the kids. Teaching three or four periods a day rather than five periods allows teachers to spend more time with fewer kids … nothing dramatic here but surprisingly few schools have adopted block scheduling models.
* Sometimes called “looping,” staying with the same kids for the 9th and 10th grades. Teams of teachers with the same kids and daily common planning time can not only build close relationships with the kids but can plan together across classes to address specific academic needs and supports.
* Mini schools or small learning communities, or whatever the term du jour, unfortunately succumb to the large school mentality. The programmer or the assistant principal or some school bureaucrat can’t or won’t figure out a way to create “smallness” in a large setting.
* An advisory class is essential in the 9th grade and 10th grade. By giving every teacher, regardless of their assignment an advisory, you can reduce the size of the class. There are a wide range of advisory curriculum, the class ties the student to a specific teacher, provides a “comfortable” space, some schools even have single sex advisories to encourage more personalized zones for guided discussions.
* The English teacher teaches a double block of ELA, the advisory and team teaches in the Social Studies and Science classes. The same teacher stays with the same group of kids throughout the school day. This model was used in the Chancellor’s District High Schools, with significant success, and was ignored under the “let a thousand flowers bloom” Klein anarchy.
* Rethinking the semester organizational pattern: we moved from two semesters to annual organization. Now, a few schools are converting to a trimester system. Two terms, with longer blocks of instructional time (seven period instead of an eight period day), with third trimester for either repeating a failed course, or, an elective. It will be interesting to follow and track the effectiveness.
A few large high schools and many small high schools have adopted some of the practices supra; unfortunately too many large high schools plod along with rigid organizational structures suited to the needs of the adults not the kids.
Teachers will protest: we really love our kids and we have close relationships; too often the teachers, unconsciously, have ratcheted down the rigor of the work to the level of the kids – what Ted Sizer refers to in his classic “Horace’s Compromise(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coalition_of_Essential_Schools) .” A teacher in an about to be closed high school proudly told me that the fifteen kids who attend her class every day would pass the Regents. Unfortunately the other fifteen never attended, they were absent or wandering the halls. The teacher was a success, her school was a failure.
I am not arguing for a French lycee approach … next Thursday in any classroom across the French Diaspora the same lesson will be taught.
Within classrooms it’s the teacher(s) responsibility to determine what novels or short stories or plays or documents to read, the vocabulary may be challenging, teachers are expected to provide “scaffolds” to assist the students, and the principal provides enough time by “designing” the program appropriately. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a standard ninth grade book, it’s vocabulary is difficult and the regional speech increases the problems, maybe start with Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” and “Prometheus,” shorter, more accessible, and deeply complex texts. A worthwhile discussion for the teachers, perhaps facilitated by an assistant principal, or a coach, or an expert outsider.
A principal who can create the space which maximizes the opportunity for success of teachers by fostering creativity within the space.
Large high schools in which teachers commonly have five classes a day and see 150 kids or more daily tend to be mechanical – you get to know only a few kids. It is a triage model. If the kid is absent or cuts or has trouble with the work – too bad. The principal rags on the assistant principals who threaten the teachers who push back – a culture of animosity and blame-placing. There are plenty of small high schools with the same culture.
Yet, in the galaxy of 400 high schools some have figured out how to maximize instructional time and create spaces in which kids feel safe and teachers have the freedom to work together and work closely with kids.
Pushing teachers, and principals, off the end of a pier, in manacles, only succeeds for Houdini.
Smart principals and creative teachers have “figured it out,” why keep it a secret?