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Monday, March 17, 2008

10 Signs of What Is Not a Crummy Poor-Kid School

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008; 8:51 AM

Two engaging books came out a year ago, each so compelling I planned a major column with guest commentators and debates and confetti and dancers and rock music. Then life intruded. I never got it together. Now my only face-saving option is to make these books the latest selections to our Better Late Than Never Book Club, this column's way of heralding works that I never get around to reading when I should.

The books are " 'It's Being Done': Academic Success in Unexpected Schools" by Karin Chenoweth, and "Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools," by Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner. My mistake was to see the two volumes as yin and yang, left and right, liberal and conservative, a distillation of the education wars, when they are in some ways complementary. So I will do Chenoweth's book today and Nichols-Berliner in two weeks.

I need to issue a bias alert for " 'It's Being Done.' " Chenoweth is a former Washington Post columnist whose work I have admired for many years. She said she was hired by the Achievement Alliance--a coalition of five educational organizations--to find and describe "schools where poor children and children of color do better than their peers in others schools." She profiles several regular public schools that meet her criteria. But the most interesting part of the book is her description of a school she removed from her list, even though its test scores looked good.

The minute she steps inside the unnamed school she realizes something is wrong. The bell is about to ring. The halls are filled with unhappy-looking children milling around. Adults are either ignoring or shouting at kids. The principal's office is locked, despite the fact that Chenoweth had arranged her visit in advance. When the principal arrives, it gets worse. Chenoweth is led from room to room. Teachers complain of students acting up, and the principal, in front of the class and Chenoweth, yells at the alleged miscreants: "What did you promise me? You sat in that office and promised me and your mother something. What was it?" The principal tells Chenoweth: "Once the state tests are done [in March and April] we don't do a lot of instruction--we're doing field trips and getting ready for the end of the year." During the test-taking, the principal says, teachers are "under strict accountability to not allow students to turn in half-filled-out answer sheets--and they can't have any wild answers either." After that breathtaking admission of test tampering, the school's average scores plunge when the testing protocols are toughened a few months after Chenoweth's visit.

The school, Chenoweth says, was the very model of what she calls the "crummy poor-kid schools" that are so common in big cities. Her visit inspired her to list the qualities she found in schools where teaching and learning are far above, rather than below, expectations. Here are 10 of her characteristics that most appeal to me and will serve as a guide for future columns on how we can identify such schools more readily than waiting for the occasional nonprofit to hire an insightful investigator like Chenoweth to go in and look around.

1. They have high expectations for their students. This phrase has been debased by overuse, but it is still key to raising standards.

2. They expand the time students--particularly struggling students--have in school. Chenoweth notes that the extra time has to be spent wisely, not just given over to students filling out worksheets.

3. They embrace and use all the data they can get their hands on. This is not the same thing as mindless teaching to, and manipulating administration of, the state tests, she says. You focus on where your students need help the most.

4. They teach their students. This seems simple-minded, but it's not. Too often, students are being sorted, spoken to, marked off, pulled out or written up, but not taught. Teaching means engaging each child in a conversation that returns to the main points occasionally to see if they have been mastered, and keeps connecting the lesson to parts of their lives.

5. They constantly reexamine what they do. There are many past examples of schools that have soared, then grown stale as educators did not adjust to new conditions.

6. They do not spend a lot of time disciplining students, in the sense of punishing them. Chenoweth says: "They teach students how to act by noticing and encouraging kindness and consideration, and they teach kids how to have good social and professional relationships by explicitly teaching them how to disagree with someone without getting upset and fighting."

7. They assume that they will have to train new teachers more or less from scratch and carefully acculturate all newly hired teachers. I found this rather startling. The best schools I know tend to recruit teachers very carefully and only hire the ones that are ready to do the job. But those are mostly independently operated public charter schools, while Chenoweth had confined her visits to regular public schools that have less control over hiring.

8. They provide teachers with the time to meet to plan and work collaboratively. This is a key to creative teaching that focuses on each child's strengths.

9. Principals are a constant presence. Almost all of Chenoweth's characteristics are dependent on having great principals who are great teachers and know how to produce more of the same.

10. They make decisions on what is good for kids, not what is good for adults. Job assignment policies that put the least experienced teachers with the most difficult to teach children are one example of how this rule is often not followed.

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