Education Opinion

How Can We Turn This Mess Around?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 19, 2012 3 min read
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Louisiana. Ground Zero for clearing the educational decks (by political steamroller or hurricane) and putting “reform” in place. Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal and the legislature he controls choose political victories and empty rhetoric over the needs of actual kids. Doesn’t matter if people are demonstrating on the statehouse steps, calling out their pain and frustration. Doesn’t matter if teachers and school leaders and families have been trying, against enormous odds, to make their neighborhood schools better.

The good work done, the hard-won, incremental inching forward? Sorry.
Ideology triumphs over human beings!

Unless it doesn’t--in some little corner, where educators keep going, in spite of the fact that their elected officials are self-righteously voting against their daily efforts to do the right thing, right down the road.

Meet the teachers in one Louisiana school, who made the decision to play by the federal government’s thorny “turnaround” rules: Boot the principal and get a new one. Boot half the teachers, and replace them. Agree to a year of intensive professional development and regular critical inspections (while simultaneously working with brand new colleagues and in a new community). Put your professional reputations on the line--and your data on the wall. Accountability, squared.

I’ve been following this school, working with them--and can testify that, to a person, they took the responsibility to turn the school around very seriously.

I was there, before the work began. And--the place was a disgraceful mess. Teachers had to take time away from lesson planning and team-building to clean layers of grime off unused materials and wash windows. No job too small or dirty--building a welcoming, safe environment was Job #1.

I was back, mid-year, as they were diligently fine-tuning instruction and curriculum--the only things they could control--and challenging each other to be more effective. And I started to think that yes, “failing” schools could be turned around.

In the end, real school reform is about people. Not governance models, iPads, data walls, or young firebrands relentlessly pursuing career tracks in education policy. Real reform is certainly not about passing laws, holding summits with Famous Speakers or adopting commercial programs wholesale. It’s not about entrepreneurs, “venture philanthropy” or $500K ad campaigns.

It is about commitment to kids and their learning. It’s about the most important knowledge and skills--and how to teach and apply them. It’s about continuously improving daily practice in the classroom, mastering a pedagogical skill set. It’s about building a school community--trusting other teachers in your building enough to reveal doubts and weaknesses, and share your best ideas; and most important, honestly reaching out to parents whose circumstances may be completely foreign to you. It’s analyzing what went right and what went wrong in the classroom every day, and using those (occasionally painful) self-critical observations tomorrow, to do it better.

The teachers holding the blue boxes? They just spent 100 hours focused on the principles in the previous paragraph--also known as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Five Core Propositions, the bedrock of NBPTS’s Take One! assessment. They’re surrounded, in the photo, by colleagues who cared enough to get involved in other teachers’ work. They’ve volunteered to hold themselves up to high and rigorous standards, to be fully professional.

They need to be applauded. They have done their very best to turn around a mess.

One of the most familiar memes in the ed reform discourse is that we make educational decisions for the benefit of adults, not kids. I used to think that wasn’t true.

But when I consider the actions of policy-makers in Louisiana--and the failure of the U.S. Department of Education to fund the National Board work for the first time--I wonder. Who really has the power to turn around a school? And who is benefiting from the idea of school “turnarounds?”

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.