Monday, May 24, 2010

Why School Reform Fails

I need to read the local paper more regularly. There was an article yesterday about the Sioux City district deciding to go ahead and pursue federal Race to the Top money (if Iowa gets awarded the money) despite concerns the board has over how it would have to be used.

One of the concerns is the options for school reform given in the federal program. There are four:

1) Turn the poorly performing school into a charter school.
2) Replace the principal and 50 percent of the staff.
3) Replace the principal and change the curriculum.
4) Close the school.

The board doesn't like any of these options. The last one is kind of dumb. What do you then do with all those students? Per number three, if the curriculum sucks, then you should change the curriculum--but why should the principal be held responsible for failures due to the curriculum?

Number two assumes incompetence on the part of both the principal and the teachers, which might be possible in some extreme cases. But seriously -- if half of the teachers at a school and the principal are all so terrible that they need to be let go, there are some higher-up heads in the district that need to roll for allowing the school to get into that condition to begin with. OR (and this is probably the most likely), there are policies and regulations in place that tied the district administrators hands to the point that they couldn't act in the students' best interest to get rid of these people earlier. So, fix THAT.

My preference is option number one -- charter school. Because I tend to think that schools fail more because of the restrictions of "the system" they are required to work within than for any other reason. If a curriculum is defective, it is often because it is written to accommodate the requirements the state or local board imposes on what will be taught when and how. If teachers grow lazy and apathetic about their work, it is often because they have learned that efforts to do things in a better way will be thwarted by the limitations placed on them. If principals fail to move their schools forward significantly, it is often because there is only so far they can go within the confines of "the system".

I worked with a fabulous principal at Hutchinson High, Mike Wortman, who encouraged us to think completely out of the box about the best ways to educate kids. If we could scrap everything we do now -- hour-long class periods, subject divisions, 7-hour days, letter grades, grade levels, paper and pencil tests -- what would be the most effective ways to teach students? The problem was, we couldn't scrap most of those things, and that's why real school reform never happens.

The system can't reform education because the system is what needs to be reformed.

1 comment:

Some lady from Pittsburgh said...

Pittsburgh Public Schools have an interesting program that we have had really good experiences with. It's a magnet program. It's not really charter, but not really regular public feeder either. It's sort of choice within the district. About half the schools in the city are feeders and half magnets (this is my off my head estimate, I could be way off.) Basically, if you don't like your feeder school (which we don't), you can apply for a magnet school. I have never heard of anyone not getting into at least one of their three choices on the magnet application. Anyway, you can sort of pick and choose what the best school for your child is. We have the big one in a traditional academy- uniforms, very structured, lots of routine. The blond one will start public Montessori next year (polar opposite- like their personalities, lol). It's nice to be able to find the best school to fit your family and even each child. The downside is that children with un-involved parents tend to pool in the not-so-awesome schools in the district, but sadly, there isn't alot the district can do to fix parental apathy.