View from the terrace of the family's Brooklyn Heights apartment

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An Up-Side-Down School?

 If the media are to be believed, just about everyone is unhappy with public schools as they are—school boards, principals, parents, and politicians. In the face of this disenchantment, there have been extraordinary federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, currently being tinkered with because of reactions in the schools that range from dissatisfaction to outrage. Foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals have gotten into the act, some from a desire to improve universal public education, others to replace it with charter or private-sector schools. The focus of most educational reform is on teachers. In my home state, Connecticut, Governor Malloy’s program, though it may differ in details, will apparently have the same focus as the federal mandates. The goal is to discover who the good teachers are and reward them, while identifying and retraining or dismissing those found wanting. The usual method is to test students in order to evaluate the performance of their teachers as well as of the schools themselves, a procedure that has produced a quagmire of questions, objections, and a maze of statistics, dear to the hearts of bureaucrats fond of crunching numbers. Certainly, standardized tests are inexpensive to print, administer, and machine correct, but just what do they measure? Though they show the willingness and ability of an individual student to take a standardized test, they may have little or no relationship to anything else, including the proficiency of the teacher. 
Of course, the kids, colleagues, and most principals already know who the really great teachers are as well as those few who are just awful. Most teachers are somewhere in the middle and are doing a commendable job. Critics of the current focus of reform claim that frequent standardized testing is counter-productive, that it will bore students, frustrate teachers, and destroy much of the curriculum that is not being tested, and they argue that poverty and straitened family circumstances are the fundamental causes of underachievement--not  the classroom teacher. So perhaps there is a better approach to improving education, one that deals with issues more basic and significant than teacher evaluation.
A brief look at two high schools, about nine miles apart in eastern Connecticut, yields some counter-intuitive surprises and strongly suggests that poverty and ethnicity are major factors in the failure of a school. Windham High School is located in Willimantic, an urban center and former mill town; E. O. Smith High School is located in largely rural Mansfield, right next to the University of Connecticut campus. While the towns are adjacent, Willimantic, though it features many fine Victorian homes, is relatively poor, with a median household income of $45,465, and Mansfield is considerably wealthier, with much higher real estate values and a median household income of $66,304. According to test results Windham High is failing, with a GreatSchools rating in the bottom 10%, and E. O. Smith is doing a lot better with a GreatSchools rating in the 50th percentile..
Some might believe that the relative amount of money spent on these schools is the key to success. Surprisingly, Windham, despite its annual struggle to pass its educational budget, spends slightly more per pupil than wealthy Mansfield, and its school spends a slightly higher proportion of its budget on instruction. The most obvious difference is that of those attending Windham, 60% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, twice the state average, while at E. O. Smith only 8% are eligible. In addition, only 38% of Windham’s students are Caucasian, while the figure for E. O. Smith is 88%. Though there is little difference in the money spent per student and the resources available, there is a considerable disparity in the proportion of students from ethnic minorities, which in this region are mainly Hispanic. For example, only 4% of E. O. Smith students are Hispanic, while the figure for Windham is 54%. The obvious, if certainly unpopular, solution to this extreme ethnic imbalance would be busing. Most probably, however, busing would be bitterly opposed and would in all likelihood, considering only grades on standardized tests, do little more than raise Windham’s scores a notch or two and lower E. O. Smith’s by about the same amount. 
Instead of focusing on the performance of teachers or waiting for the millennium when poverty and straitened family circumstances will be no more and ethnicity will no longer be a negative factor, why not experiment right now with a structural change in public education? A revenue-neutral revolution would be to change the culture of the schools by turning the system upside-down—literally. In place of a top down hierarchy with mandates from school boards, superintendents, and principals, try a democratic, bottom-up approach. Let the teachers elect a principal for a given term; let committees of teachers, with input from parents and students, determine policies--budget allocation, curriculum, evaluation, activities, and the like. In short, empower the teachers, parents, and students to make all the important decisions  about their school. Such a change in the culture of the school would motivate all parties involved and ensure that everyone is heard and their questions addressed. Motivation is surely the single most important predictor of success in school. Of course, such a change might best be introduced with pre-schoolers and work its way through a system from the primary school, through the middle school, and finally high school. Perhaps some “under-performing” school district is ready for such an experiment.

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