Back to School 2012-13: Giving Our Schools More Hope

by Forum Convener Dr. Larry Myatt

It's back-to-school time for many over the next few weeks.  What do most public teachers and students across the nation have to look forward to as they head back for the 2012-13 school year?

  • Yet another "common core".  (What's wrong with the dozens, if not hundreds, that states, curriculum and cultural organizations have already constructed over the past decades?  Is it the lists or what we do/don't do with them that make us need a "latest version"?)
  • Lots more testing, costing us hundreds of millions to implement even in times of budget scarcity. (Have you been in or around a school when testing is taking place?  Stress. Anxiety.  A brink's truck worth of secrecy and security passing as education.  By the way, our new generation of school leaders and teachers has grown up on standardized testing.)
  • A federal administration that says that those tests don't give a full picture of the quality of learning.
  • A federal administration, with friends at the state bureaucracy level, that say those same tests are good enough to use to measure teacher performance
  • Loads of schools that will be crushed by new teacher-evaluation mandates that rely on those same test scores, "data-driven goal setting" and hundreds of hours of report writing, all in the name of holding teachers accountable.  (These mandates will swamp them all:  schools with strong cultures of pedagogy, schools with good plans in motion and schools with neither.)
  • Surveys across the land that say more kids are bored and tuned out in school, especially in high schools, and are sick of being told "what matters" more than their own questions about the world.
  • Big high-school dropout numbers.
  • Fewer qualified individuals who want to lead our schools.
  • Traditional public schools in every town and city in which two hours of meetings a month pass for the thought partnership needed to improve a mediocre experience for 75% of our students.  Institutions that should define the intellectual life of the community haven't figured out how to employ computers in a way that vaguely resembles the real world.  It boggles the mind.
  • Proliferating charter schools that mimic the architecture and adacemic platforms of 1950's schools that served the affluent, many under the banner of "no excuses".

Yes, it's a troubling take for those heading back into the trenches.

We will not get a lot of real and timely support from the policy and bureaucratic worlds.  Despite their good intentions, they have put us into this predicament.  As my longtime friend and mentor Ted Sizer said at every opportunity, the best thing that policy makers can do is to create the best possible conditions for schools and get out of the way.

Teachers, administrators and, above all, students, need and deserve some relief.

Here's how I think we can dig ourselves out:

  1. Accept the harsh reality that, at present, we don't have enough time for or skill in deep, collaborative analysis and problem-solving at the school level.  Let's make the time.  Find the time at every school and invite smart, design-oriented, capacity-building help from the outside.  Let's include hyper -involved local brain trusts.
  2. Sweep away the residual weight and glut of inherited, competing frameworks for teaching.  Have a school-wide conversation about how and why we should use the authentic achievement rubric as the lodestone for teaching and learning.  Every teacher needs to know what truly cognitively-rigorous work looks like.  Every teacher needs support and accountablilty for bringing truly cognitively-rigorous work to students.  This can and should be real institution-building--a school development dream come true--if thought out and led well.  The work can only be done one school at a time.  (Sizer said that too.)  Work of this kind flows beautifully into the ascendant, national "multiple measures" and performance assessment conversations.  This good policy thinking helps to gauge classroom learning and teacher skills in smarter, more positive ways.  What teachers' association wouldn't want to grab on to those in today's climate?
  3. Place a two-fold, heavy emphasis on opportunities for student choice and the intense application of technology tools.  They go together, and are critical to meeting students where they're at and take them where they want to go as intellectual/social beings.  Too many people don't realize that Bloom's taxonomy has been dramatically updated in a way that can propel our agenda for better teaching and learning.  This is totally in sync with the ways that real, working adults do business and can move us towared the elusive, much bandied "21st century learning" goal in every school's plan.
  4. Make sure that we have deep and expansive programs (and adult cultures) that recognize the critical role of social/emotional resilience and positive youth development (PYD) as the critical underpinning of achievement in schools serving poor families.  We need more resources, of course, in such schools, but without the PYD framework, we fail to respect and activate young minds and hearts.
  5. Have knowledgeable and skilled teachers work together to, literally, take scissors and cut up copies of the "standards".  Then--after planning inviting, authentic, achievement-oriented lessons--paste them back together in ways that make sense for students and schools, not for bureaucrats and "culture mavens".  They'll all fit just right, believe me.  Haven't we learned over 30 years that approaching these standards as lists to cover doesn't get the job done?  I work with schools that are readily succeeding with this liberating tactic and they refuse to let top-down, linear approaches and pacing guides rule the day.
  6. Abandon the usual rubber-stamp or stubbornly contentious "school site councils" and statutory oversight/approval groups that pass for governance or quality-assurance mechansisms.  Replace them with real, highly-trained and empowered leadership teams or study groups whose work would guide the school, develop resident expertise and involve all constituents who truly want to work for improvement.  And, following the ground-breaking work of some of the new Abuquerque small high schools, let's get real and smart about parent engagement and business/community involvement that can drive change and improvement.
  7. Finally, if you're a charter school, or an in-district pilot, and you have the five autonomies (budget, curriculum, staffing, governance, clock/calendar) we all thought would surely rescue us from sleepy tradition, please take on some real innovation.  You have the bully pulpit and the flexibility.  Revisit such things as the age-alike cohort model that binds us, the arcane and unproductive curriculum hierarchy, the brittle partnerships we form with businesses and communities, the egg-crate scheduling, and our sorely-lagging attempts at technology integration (!).  That's a short list of the structures and practices we continue to employ that, in reality, misguide and fail us.  There are so many others that need to be abandoned or replaced!  Bring in people who are used to thinking deeply about school design to help that work flow productively.

Our schools sorely need hope.  We can provide some with these simple but potentially powerful suggestions. Above all, we need some genuine leadership to take these issues on.  School's in!

 

Forum Convener Dr.Larry Myatt is the Co-Founder of the Education Resources Consortium and a former National Faculty Member of The Coalition of Essential Schools