Wednesday, March 21, 2012

School Reform - A Modest Proposal

All morning I have been thinking and writing about real school reform. I've been thinking about the two schools I've taught at prior to my current position. The first school is the model of reform and the second is a patient in critical condition, desperate for the kind of reform that was created at the first. Yesterday, I wrote about how I keep having to look for hope to continue in teaching and that I often find it through the National Writing Project and interactions with my students. Today, I'm thinking about a larger kind of hope and suggesting a system that might be of use in our current sorry state of affairs.

First, the bad news. The current trend is toward homogenization and big data. Thinking about the school that is falling apart, it's clear that the school was hobbled by a requirement to be more like the other schools in the district. This school is far removed from the others, serves a particular clientele, and had done things differently and successfully for years. Being brought under the umbrella of the larger institution removed most of the individualized nature of the place and broke it in ways that it couldn't survive. The program is now much more like the other programs in our district, but it is broken and struggling.

The goal of homogenization was to satisfy big data which is a term I use to signify the kind of data that fits easily in a spreadsheet which then becomes a Powerpoint presentation at a board meeting. Big data reduces students to numbers and teachers to worker-bees. It elevates the test above all. This is the direct result of No Child Left Behind and its uglier step-brother Race to the Top.

The school I used to know is falling apart because it was never designed to be like the other programs and its mission was not to serve big data's needs. My guess is that the school is a loss. It won't be saved, but it could have been, and my earlier school points to how it can be done.

That old school is the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program in Providence, RI. It is an independent public school, which is odd enough, but it is also a program that was designed from the start by teachers. Still, like any school, the place has had to change with the times. Rhode Island, when I taught there, had a program called SALT (School Accountability for Learning and Teaching). SALT could save education. I'm not exaggerating even a little.

The SALT process, when it came through our school, consisted of a team of teachers and administrators not affiliated with our school in any other way save they were evaluating us. They spend a full week in the school shadowing students, attending classes, interviewing staff, students, and parents. It was rigorous. It was exhausting. And their report when it was delivered to us a month or so later was scathing and sent us all into a rage.

A month later I re-read their report and saw what they had meant and saw too that they had been right.

Self-examination is hard. It can sometimes be too hard. Having the SALT team come through and do that examination for us was also painful, but it was something they could do better than we could have. It was a thing they did and did as well as any review I have ever seen. Through the process, after we had finished howling, we saw ways in which we could transform and reform our school to better serve students.

The data included the usual big data, but it also included the wise observations of professionals. It set out to help teachers and the director reform the place to best serve all the students. Most of all, it trusted teachers to do the job of running a school and helping kids learn. That trust matters. It inspires.

I've been gone from UCAP for a long time and I miss the place. Mostly I miss the attitude. Rob Deblois who created the program and still directs it is a teacher leader in every way. He respects his teachers and his students, he learns every day, he teaches every day. That school is a model for how schools can be reformed in this country and, for my money, SALT is a great way to go.

I like thinking about this stuff. Anyone got any idea how I can keep thinking about it, make a difference in schools, and not get lost in the traps of homogenization and big data? Let me know. And until then, I'll write on.