Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Crisis Could Produce Opportunity - If We Wanted it To

What does it take to get an institution to try something different? Admittedly, that's hard work. Institutional culture and traditions die hard. But crisis can make pioneers out of us all!

Unless you are the Dallas Independent School District. In that case you simply tinker around the edges and overlay a few long implored techniques over the existing infrastructure, throw a few more dollars at it and hope for the best. Take for example the latest suggestion for schools in DISD that are threatened with closure should test scores not improve...

"Details are still being worked out, [Dr. Michael] Hinojosa said, but the plan would target six to eight of the district's struggling high schools. He said affected campuses have not been determined, because officials want to see which schools remain on the state's list after this spring's TAKS results come in.

"Students at the affected campuses would attend school for up to five extra school weeks, under the plan. Hinojosa said that would provide the students with more learning time and attract good teachers, who would receive $5,000 to $6,000 more in base pay.

"Hinojosa is also suggesting enhancing $6,000 bonuses that were offered to lure top-notch teachers to the neediest campuses. Those bonuses have not been successful, but raising the amount to $10,000 for teachers highly qualified in math and science could make the difference, he said.

"The teachers would automatically receive two-year contracts – an incentive for good teachers who fear losing their jobs if the campuses don't improve quickly.

""We needed to do something different than what we were doing," Hinojosa said. "Our intent is to try to drop in some high-caliber teachers."

"More instructional coaches also would be used to support classroom teachers."


These are not bad suggestions - they are interim efforts. The question is not how different will the administrative infrastructure be, its how different will instruction be? If the 'improvement' is adding teachers, paying them more and extending the school day without giving them the freedom to teach creatively, what difference does it make? And if, in the end, the focus is still to make sure that these kids demonstrate minimum proficiency on standardized tests, what does it mean other than lengthening the school year to produce mediocrity?

There are other more revolutionary models out there. Take for example Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago (College Prep - that in itself is a revolutionary idea!), a city wide magnet school.

"In his quest to improve America’s schools, President Obama has called for innovation and globalization. Successful models for that innovation can be found right in the former backyard of both Obama and new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. On a typical morning at Walter Payton College Prep High School in Chicago, students are greeted warmly by a guest instructor for the day. One day the guest may be from nearly 5,000 miles away in Switzerland, connected through the school’s state-of-the-art videoconference system. Another day there may be a teacher connected to the school from China. In math classes, students work on problems that come from peers as far away as France, India and Japan.

"At Walter Payton College Prep, a citywide magnet school, black students make up roughly 25 percent of the student body and Hispanics constitute roughly 21 percent.

"The school's curriculum and philosophy take dead aim on two entwined imperatives facing American education: the persistent problem of underachievement and high dropout rates, particularly among non-white and low-income students, and the equally urgent need to prepare all students for work and civic roles in a globalized environment, where success increasingly requires the ability to compete, connect and cooperate on an international scale.

"Duncan’s record in Chicago suggests he is up to the challenge of fostering the growth of more schools like Payton. He pushed for consistency and rigor in the K-12 curriculum and, amid other reforms, championed the creation of small, more engaging schools across the city. At the same time, he created the largest Chinese language program in the United States and, in Walter Payton College Prep, established one of the country’s best public schools focusing on international education.
"The key to the success of these schools [another such school in Seattle, Washington is cited in the article] is that they do not merely layer on an international perspective once the basics are covered or reserve international content for a select few; rather, they use a global focus to deeply engage all students in learning."

I do indeed get upset about public education. We are wasting an opportunity. We are wasting our future. We are wasting the talents of some excellent school teachers and principals. And we are wasting the lives of our children.

Chicago schools have plenty of problems. But there are examples in Chicago, and other areas, troubled and not so troubled, of using resources to encourage good teachers to do their best job and inspire children to learn. It seems to me that we could do better if we wanted to...


Chris said...

I am not a teacher but from talking to teachers and reading about what goes on in schools, I believe that no amount of money can improve schools until basic discipline is restored. Teachers hands are tied in what they can do to restore order in the classroom. A few students can ruin the ability of even the best students to learn.

Gerald Britt said...


While there is more than a little truth to what you say, there are more than a few reasons why children become discipline problems.

Of course that means it is not just a 'school problem'. Every institution that impacts children and their families has to figure out a way to partner with schools to maximize their effectiveness.

Bill Betzen said...

Why are people hesitant to mention focusing our students onto their own futures? Are people fearful such a focus can't be done?

We now have schools at all levels, elementary, middle and high school, who are planning to start School Archive Projects yet this year in Dallas ISD. We also have one $5,000 donation that will cover the vaults for three of those schools with $1,000 grants each from the Dallas Educational Foundation at DISD. The vaults will function as time-capsules bolted to the floors in a visible place of respect in each school, in a place where this vault under spotlights will be seen every day many times by all students. They will know this vault holds their record of their history and their plans for the future, which they will update for the last time and leave in that vault for a decade as they leave for the next educational level. They know they can always change their goals. They also know that the source of most failure is to have no goals at all.

This goal focused process can start in elementary school, continue in middle school, and hopefully be mastered in high school. There can be vaults and final letters left all along the way in schools at each level. There are many changes in goals, just like in "real" life. Our goal as educators should be is to focus our students onto their own goals first, then make certain they have the tools needed to achieve those goals.

At the middle school level (and maybe at all levels as programs develop), when the reunions start the plan is to ask those coming back for the reunions to also speak with the then current 8th grade students giving their "Recommendations for Success" talk. They are warned to be prepared for questions from the decade younger students such as "Would you do anything differently if you were 13 again?"

How could such a lived and evolving focus on the future by our students not be the medicine, the "silver bullet," that is needed by our students for the motivation issues and the dropout issues they all face?