Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Size Does Not Matter, Passion Does (Subject is Not What You Think)

Pretty thrilling piece about how a big school went from worst to first (at least in test scores) by emphasizing in all classes, even gym, reading, writing, reasoning, speaking. 

My favorite part of the piece:

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.
I liked this because I stole this exercise from a prof at Oberlin to help fill up time to illustrate the difficulties of implementation when I first started teaching American and Texas Public Policy.  It was a fun demonstration, following the students' instructions.  Made a big mess. 

Of course, the real lesson here is you need to have really dedicated, passionate teachers, willing to spend significant time (Saturdays) to figure out what is required and then administrative support (or at least the administrators staying out of the way).  "“Let me help you,” was a response committee members said they often offered to reluctant colleagues who argued that some requests were too difficult."

“In schools, no matter the size — and Brockton is one of the biggest — what matters is uniting people behind a common purpose, setting high expectations, and sticking with it.” 

This does not have to be so conflictual:
Teachers unions have resisted turnaround efforts at many schools. But at Brockton, the union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract.
An example: the contract set aside two hours per month for teacher meetings, previously used to discuss mundane school business. The committee began dedicating those to teacher training, and made sure they never lasted a minute beyond the time allotted.

Making meetings more focused, effective.  Wow.  So basic, but such a "force multiplier" as the military gusy would put it.  Which reminds me--we had morning meetings everyday in our division of the Joint Staff--they almost always pretty short, but allowed the commander to get situational awareness quickly and for the rest of us to keep track of what our colleagues were doing. 

Tradeoffs?  What tradeoffs?

When the school began receiving academic awards, they were made into banners and displayed prominently.  Athletics had traditionally been valued above academic success, and coaches had routinely pressured teachers to raise the grades of star players to maintain their eligibility. Dr. Szachowicz said she put an end to any exceptions. But the school retained all varsity sports, as well as its several bands and choruses, extensive drama program and scores of student clubs.

Scholars have studied this case and others and found the following:
“Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.” 

Note--improving quality of instruction--not firing teachers, not focusing on test scores (although the article talks much about them), but on instruction.  

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