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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Did Districts Really Do That? Some of Their Worst Decisions

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 23, 2023 9 min read
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I’ve previously published a series on the best decisions districts have made.

Now, it’s time for the other shoe to drop and share the worst ones.

My nomination has got to be the decision by our district last year to propose reducing teacher salaries. That terrible move resulted in a nine-day strike, a complete reversal by the district, pay increases for both certificated and classified staff, and the election of three new school board members.

Educator Ralph Moore, a history teacher in North Carolina, shared what he thought his district’s worst decision was:

Structure online COVID classes on a synchronous daily schedule mimicking regular school day. High school started at 7:25!

I share his concern. Our district made the same wrongheaded decision when we moved to distance learning. Fortunately, however, we teachers (along with students and their families) staged a grassroots “revolt” and refused to go along with it. Instead, each school decided its own class schedule based on its own needs. Our district leadership was powerless to implement its directive and was reduced to writing a letter to the state complaining about our refusal to go along with its out-of-touch edicts. It’s safe to say that letter was immediately placed in the “circular file.”

You might also be interested in a previous post here sharing 7 Mistakes Districts Have Made During the Pandemic.

Hiring More Law Enforcement

Michael Gaskell is a veteran middle school principal in New Jersey, having served as a special education teacher and administrator over the past 25 years. He has authored dozens of articles, is working on a third book, and engages educators and other experts on his podcast, Big Ideas in Small Windows, all with a focus on helping students and faculty succeed in modern schools:

It seems that for all the good intentions made by districts, many perilous decisions are made that negatively affect children.

Political influence has been the driving force behind most decisions made that have had poor outcomes for students and faculty. As an educator, I was always stunned by this. How could those who went into education, almost always because they cared about children, let political influence inhibit the best opportunities for children?

With this context framed, I can recall an occasion where a district rushed to hire a disproportionate number of security and law enforcement in the midst of the national attention that so often cycles back and forth along a pendulum, whenever there is a school tragedy. This may sound like a good decision on the surface, but it is not.

I learned that at the same time the district faced cuts resulting in a reduction in faculty to support student learning, increases in security would occur. This inverse relationship was the most obvious problem. Reducing faculty at the cost of security is an unacceptable practice. Students need teachers, counselors, and other certificated faculty more than ever, not less. These are the individuals who build and nurture relationships with children, serving as positive adult role models, where they may have little or none.

The other problem with this was how the security was to be utilized. There is evidence that when security aims to foster relationships in the same way faculty do, they begin to disrupt the patterns of persistent barriers that exist between those that represent law enforcement and disadvantaged children.

Put another way, when kids see adults in uniform, they come with preconceived notions that are filtered through systemic cultural values. When adults in uniform have the opportunity to engage students in mentoring-type relationships, like one school’s “schoolhouse adjustment” program, children and families alter their view of the role adults in uniform serve. Likewise, school security gets to know children in ways that are not punitive and serves as a supportive ally.

Arranging relationship-building mechanisms like the schoolhouse adjustment has a more profound impact on the security of schools than surveillance cameras, hallway security presence, and in applying methods of forced compliance. I am happy to say that decisionmakers are becoming more attuned to the value of integrating school security into the fabric of school communities, rather than being perceived as a virtual SWAT team. When adults in uniform and students connect, all are safer and ready to learn.

I have observed many hostile interactions between school security and students. What makes this more difficult is that various security officers, many of whom are retired law-enforcement officers, were not trained in classroom management or tension-reduction strategies, although that is beginning to change, too. I am encouraged by these changes and urge all school communities to embrace school security as an inevitable part of the school, primarily to serve in a mentoring role first, and for surveillance second, rather than the other way around.

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Failing to Listen

Chandra Shaw has more than 24 years of experience in education as a teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and now a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers. As a TEDx speaker and amateur YouTuber, Chandra loves to find ways to share her passion and love for teaching and learning with educators everywhere:

The absolute worst thing a school district did while I was working there was making the decision to transition almost all of their elementary and middle schools to “problem-based” learning. Normally, I’m all for a little project-based learning, but the way in which this district rolled out the initiative and failed to listen to anyone’s concerns about our personnel infrastructure was negligent at best.

I’d served on several planning committees as an instructional coach and former teacher who’d successfully implemented PBL in my classroom, along with more traditional instructional models. The district paid for us to go on field trips to other districts that were utilizing project-based learning through the Buck Institute. We absolutely loved what we saw! The children who’d volunteered for these districts’ PBL schools, with parent permission, were thriving in this setting. They learned through interdisciplinary group projects and were well seasoned at presenting in front of community leaders and their peers. Our district wanted to offer that same energy and 21st-century learning for our students.

However, when the time came for my district to roll out our version of PBL, it wasn’t project-based learning. It was the slightly different problem-based learning, AND we were told that every grade 3-8 teacher would have to teach using PBLs only! If that wasn’t bad enough, requiring all students to participate in PBL all the time, the organization they chose to help train all of the staff was some new startup that had no real resources to help the teachers design PBL. We were basically their guinea pigs and doing much of their work for them!

A few others and I raised our concerns about the stark differences in this new version of PBL from the Buck Institute’s, but we were quickly reprimanded for not being more positive about the transition. We also questioned the decision to include ALL students regardless of whether they signed up for learning through PBL like in the other schools we’d visited. Luckily, the district did listen to this concern and at least offered at each grade level one section of a “traditional” learning model. Within three years, every elementary school in the district was rated as “needs improvement” on the state’s accountability measures.

While the district eventually abandoned the all-PBL model at the end of the third year, the damage had already been done. Not only did the students have huge learning gaps, but the number of great teachers and instructional leaders who left the district during those three years rather than continue doing something that they knew wasn’t working for kids was astounding. I was one of those who left. This was by far the worst decision I’ve ever witnessed in a district.

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Thanks to Michael and Chandra for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What are the one-to-three worst decisions a school district you were working for has made during your teaching career and why was it/were they so bad?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.

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