Curriculum Opinion

Real Reform Happens When Teachers Are In Charge

By Dave Powell — April 16, 2016 5 min read
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Well, here’s some good news for a change. Out in Washington state, at Sammamish High School, the staff has hit on something that really works: they’ve changed their approach to teaching students and are getting great results. Here’s how the Seattle Times describes it:

About six years ago, Sammamish High School teachers decided to take a risky departure from how they had been teaching—providing fewer lectures and more opportunities for students to work together applying what they were learning to real-world problems. The teachers hoped the hands-on approach would make learning more relevant and memorable, and help more students succeed in challenging classes.

Did I read that right? This seems like everything those rumpled up, out of touch, theory-obsessed professors of education are always talking about: try to move away from talking at your students and toward helping them apply what you want them to know—and what they already know—to problems that actually have some meaning in their lives. Get them involved in problem solving. Be more “hands-on” but don’t forget to be “minds on” too. Make learning relevant, memorable, and challenging.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that teacher education is not practical enough precisely because education professors spend too much time, we’re told, emphasizing things like this—crazy theories like “students learn more when you connect the things you teach to their lives” and “students actually come to school with a lot of knowledge about the world already” that would never work in the “real world” of classrooms. At Sammamish, the teachers started by redesigning a few Advanced Placement courses with the help of researchers the University of Washington, but quickly realized that things were going even better than they thought they would. Kids even did better on their tests because of the way they were taught, if you can believe that.

That’s right, folks: good teaching is not an impediment to high test scores. You don’t have to teach to the test for kids to pass it.

And it gets better. As soon as everyone started to notice that teaching this way worked for the AP kids they had another brainstorm: if it’s good enough for them, why wouldn’t it be good enough for everybody? There are 46 languages spoken at Sammamish, but that didn’t deter the teachers and staff from trying to change the way they do things. My favorite part of this story comes about halfway through when the reporter, John Higgins, says that this effort is “an example of how teachers can dramatically change their school from the ground up.” That emphasis on teachers is mine.

School reform led by teachers? How about that.

This school improved its entire academic program not because some state board of education or governor or legislature stepped in and told it what to do. The school wasn’t shut down and made into a “turnaround” school. It was not converted to a charter. Maybe most miraculously, not a single teacher’s career was harmed in the making of this reform. “We’re not hiring a new staff, we’re using who we’ve got,” science teacher Suzanne Reeve reports. “We’re not getting rid of the union. We’re not becoming a magnet and attracting different kids. We are who we are.”

Did you catch that? “We are who we are,” she said. What a terrific thing to say.

I can’t help thinking that we’d all be better off if we would simply allow ourselves to live by this maxim: we are who we are. Instead of trying to copy systems in other countries or radically rework ours with nuclear options that do more harm than good, maybe we could take a step back and recognize that we are who we are—and who we are may not be as bad as who we thought we were. And just think of the implications here. Apparently, you can change a school and get dramatic results and still have a union. And you don’t have to fire the teachers? And no bureaucrats got in the way? Amazing.

There are other lessons too. One important one is that this wasn’t cheap, but it also wasn’t prohibitively expensive either. The changes were made with the help of a $4 million federal grant, put together with the help of the University of Washington and even an evil corporate entity, Microsoft. (I say that in jest—not because I think Microsoft isn’t evil, one way or the other, but because sometimes these kinds of partnerships can actually be beneficial if we’d let them be.) Most of that money was spent to hire substitute teachers to allow teachers to work together on the reform. It wasn’t, it should be noted, spent on fancy new technology or outside professional development or administrative costs of any kind. So Sammamish received multiple layers of help focused on a single-minded goal, but no one was telling them what to do. True philanthropy is handing over the money and trusting the people you give it to with the responsibility to spend it wisely. This project “was locally owned and it was locally driven,” the science teacher, Reeve, says in the article. “A top-down mandate would not work.”

The only thing interrupting the uncharacteristically warm, fuzzy feelings I had when I read this article was the headline: “Risky Change in Teaching Pays Off at Bellevue’s Sammamish High.” That one word, risky, sums up eloquently what seems to prevent schools from making these kinds of changes. Why is that? What’s risky about working together to make school better for students (and teachers)? What’s risky about applying the volumes of educational research indicating that problem-based learning pays tremendous dividends for both students and their teachers? What’s risky about teaching better so students will learn more?

I think I know. It’s hard to change, and I don’t blame teachers for feeling a little insecure about making big changes like these. But the real risk of this kind of reform isn’t a risk for teachers and students in schools at all, at least not as long as teachers believe in themselves and their students. The risk this kind of change poses is to the outsiders so heavily invested in reshaping schools in ways they have already decided will work in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary.

In other words, the risk here was not that Sammamish’s curriculum overhaul wouldn’t work—the risk was that it would. If more schools like Sammamish managed to find this kind of success they’d provide incontrovertible evidence that the existing levers of schools of reform we keep pulling are the wrong ones. I don’t know about you, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

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