Good Intentions

Chicago's dramatic reform strategy has brought order, caring, and a sense of pride to Walter H. Dyett Middle School. But has it really changed what goes on in the classroom?

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Ten years ago, the publication of the federal report A Nation at Risk triggered, with its dire warnings of an educational meltdown, the current school reform movement.

Since then, we have witnessed an unprecedented effort to improve our public schools. We have seen hundreds of blue-ribbon commissions, councils, coalitions, and consortia; scores of books on reform; and a plethora of legislative mandates, all of this activity directed to the noble objective of improving learning in America.

Nowhere has reform been more debated and more dramatic than in Chicago. Angry and frustrated by protracted teacher strikes, annual disputes over district budgets, and a performance record that prompted former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett to call the system America’s worst, Chicago parents in 1987 staged a populist revolution.

They attacked the corrupt and complacent central bureaucracy and pressed for legislation that would give them a direct say in how their schools are run. In December 1988, after a year of fierce lobbying, they saw passage of the Chicago School Reform Act, which established a Local School Council at each of the city’s 542 public schools. Almost a year later, 313,000 voters elected 5,420 parents, teachers, and community leaders to serve on the councils and govern the schools on a local basis. It was the first time a grass-roots movement had produced such sweeping school reform.

But what impact, if any, has the school reform movement actually had on classroom practice—on how and what children learn? The 10th anniversary of A Nation at Risk is a propitious time to ask this most important question.

In search of an answer, I talked with a number of people who have been deeply involved in school reform, including parents, teachers, administrators, and scholars. But I also wanted to see firsthand what was happening in the classrooms of a school well into the process of “being reformed.” I decided to visit a Chicago middle school that is a recognized success story, or at least what educators call a successful “effective school.”

Any visit to a Chicago school must first be understood in the context of the “effective schools” model upon which the city’s school reform is substantially based. Developed in the late 1970s, partly in response to research by University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman indicating that academic achievement most perfectly correlated to a student’s social and economic background, the effective schools model is an attack on academic determinism. Scholars such as the late Harvard University professor Ronald Edmonds insisted that all students would learn if teachers held high expectations for them and if a rigorous basic-skills approach were implemented in a structured atmosphere. “Education,” Edmonds wrote in a 1979 essay, “refers to early acquisition of those basic school skills that assure pupils access to the next level of schooling.”

The principal was the key player; he or she was to be a kind of educational commander in chief who maintained order and enforced high, if uniform, academic standards. In the same essay, Edmonds wrote that effective schools for poor children generally “have a tyrannical principal who compels teachers to bring all children to a minimum level of mastery of basic skills.”

Edmonds’ views have been modified in that reformers hope for a principal who is a team player rather than a dictator. Still, the belief in the efficacy of a powerful principal was and is at the heart of Chicago school reform. As one highly placed school reformer told me, “As the principal goes, so goes the school.” Crudely put, the hope is for a sort of “trickle-down” effect, in which the principal’s good sense seeps into corridors and classrooms; teachers, in this scenario, are likely to see the principal as a skilled chief executive officer who gets their input before making important decisions. Just how often this really occurs is uncertain.

In Chicago, the principal clearly acquired new powers with the enactment of the reform act. For instance, a principal may now, with the approval of the Local School Council (LSC), decide how critical Chapter 1 monies are to be spent. And while principals must still adhere to systemwide academic objectives set by the board of education, they are free—ideally with the input of teachers (whom they now have authority to hire and fire)—to implement a wide range of new and even radical instructional strategies.

But this picture of the principal as a strong educational leader is problematic. For while the principal has more power, it’s also power more tenuously held—so much more tenuously held that the Chicago Principals Association initially fought the school reform legislation. In short, the principals have had to surrender tenure, and their fate is now decided every four years by the LSC, which is made up of six parents, two other community representatives, two teachers, and the principal. What the LSC giveth—a new contract—it can also taketh away.

Theoretically, making the principals accountable to the LSC ensures that they become effective builders of consensus and strong educational leaders. So far, though, the results are unclear. LSC members, like the public at large, may very likely confuse a good education with rigidity both in and out of the classroom. While some principals may be innovators, others working in the effective schools vein may redouble their efforts to maintain order and impose a staunch back-to-basics approach.

Walter H. Dyett Middle School, on the south side of Chicago, has been cited by Omni magazine as one of the 77 schools in the nation to watch. “We are,” the school’s literature proclaims, “a school of the future.” Several reform observers describe it, more modestly, as “a pretty good school,” with an energetic principal who has won several awards. It has been the subject of several effective schools videos.

Dyett’s student body of 830 is almost entirely AfricanAmerican and disadvantaged. According to the principal, its students enter 6th grade with the equivalent of a grade 3.5 education. As I drove to Dyett early on a Thursday morning, past monolithic housing projects and boarded-up storefronts, it occurred to me that this was the kind of school over which James Coleman casts a long shadow.

In the August 1992 issue of the student newspaper, The Dyett Express, an advice column appeared for new students written by their older peers. As may be expected, much of it is a long list of familiar “don’ts”—”do not run in the halls,” “do not ever challenge a teacher.” But toward the bottom of the page, a seemingly innocuous item caught my attention. The counsel to incoming 6th graders read: “You will have to do your work, shut your mouth, and listen because when you do these things, you learn.”

It would be foolhardy to make too much of a 12-year-old’s solitary remark. Yet the statement is far from capricious in tone and seemed, as I learned more about Dyett, to signify much about the school’s values. Order, obedience, and effort are highly prized.

Yvonne Minor, the school’s principal, indicated as much to me when I asked how the LSC—the educational “nonprofessionals” entrusted with school governance—could tell how the school was faring.

“Let’s look at our school improvement plan,” she said, referring to a goal-oriented document all schools must produce. “The number one objective is improvement in academics: math, reading, science, and all of that. Here one can study progress reports, standardized tests. Another issue is discipline. You can easily tell by the climate in the building, the number of discipline problems that come across the disciplinarian’s desk, or even discipline problems that arise in the classroom as to whether or not the school has improved.”

Judging by the criterion of discipline, Dyett is an outstanding school. Rules are strict and enforced: Fighting receives a three-day suspension, cursing a two-day suspension. A dress code prohibits makeup and gang insignia. As a result, Dyett is, as Minor put it, “a real calm school.”

As if to highlight the school’s emphasis on discipline, my conversation with Minor was interrupted by the pop and fizzle of the public address system. A girl then came on and solemnly intoned the Dyett School Pledge. The pledge, which is read daily and prominently posted in each classroom, consists of eight statements. While the last two speak of coming to school with an open mind and a willingness to learn, listen, and participate, the others are strongly behavioristic in bent: “I honor and respect my parents, my teachers, my classmates, and myself. I come to school with a clean body and appropriate clothing. I come to school with paper in my notebook, pen, and pencil.”

Such a list is hardly surprising, for effective schools have always emphasized discipline—an emphasis that is hard to criticize.

In between classes, I watched tidily dressed students move to and fro in an orderly, almost subdued manner. The corridors were immaculate if somewhat stark; the glossy yellow walls had an institutional cast. Teachers were posted at the doors, vigilant. During class sessions, the hallways were virtually deserted; once, when a student seemed to appear from nowhere, he was immediately stopped by the vice principal and questioned. I myself could scarcely look around without being asked—albeit in the friendliest manner—just who I was and what I was doing.

A math teacher spotted me roaming through the hallway and warmly invited me into her classroom. In unison, the students looked up from their books, said “Good morning,” and then returned to their work. They were, the teacher explained, writing out the answers to reading comprehension questions. On the board, for later use, was the day’s math objective. “Eighty to 90 percent of what we do is to meet objectives,” she cheerfully explained. As she guided me through her system of checking homework, the students sat silently under a ceiling of hanging plants.

Americans who see (often with great accuracy) our urban schools as dangerous and chaotic respond with wholehearted approval to media portrayals of polite, well-groomed students. And parents who must watch their children grow up under the daily threat of violence are understandably pleased to have their children attend safe, clean schools. It is no wonder, then, that all the LSC members I met spoke of Minor with absolute, unsolicited respect.

Still, there’s no reason to assume that an orderly school will be one that meets the first of the Chicago reform act’s 10 goals: “that students achieve proficiency in reading, writing, mathematics, and higher-order thinking [italics mine] that equals or surpasses national norms.” In fact, a disciplinary school culture is likely to permeate the classroom, demanding a teacher-centered orderliness that is incompatible with the messy, freewheeling nature of authentic problem solving. Such an environment makes it difficult for a teacher of basic skills to suddenly shift gears and nurture higher-order thinking.

A case in point was a “gifted” 7th grade social studies class. Understandably apprehensive about my visit—I had simply “shown up” at the classroom as the principal had suggested I do—the teacher hastily told me that the students would be using cooperative learning to study the situation in South Africa. While the setup looked like a “cooperative” classroom—the students were divided into groups of four—the lesson was structured along traditional lines. Competitive time-on-task activities dominated; students, under severe time restrictions, found answers in the text and relayed them to the class.

The first question, to be answered in five minutes, was: “If you were president of South Africa, how would you solve the problems?” I was assigned to work with three girls; together, we feverishly compiled answers.

The students were obviously bright and enthusiastic; when the teacher asked for responses at the end of the allotted time a flood of hands waved in the air. “If we were president, we’d unite warring groups,” one group leader suggested. “How?” the teacher asked. “We’d get them into a big meeting where all the leaders of different races come together.” What else could be done? “Set up places in American cities where people could donate money to South Africa,” another group leader said. “Have a giant fundraiser.” A final and novel suggestion was on how the president should deal with recalcitrant factions: “If they won’t cooperate, put them in the navy.”

Certainly, many of the students’ comments were worthy of further consideration—just how, after all, can we get people with varying views to get along?—but it was apparently time to move on. This time, we were asked to consider if we’d want to trade places with South African children the students had read about. Once again, there was a five-minute time restriction; once again, the responses were richly suggestive. Almost unanimously, the children said they wouldn’t want to leave America behind. Mirroring other responses, a boy said the blacks “looked like they lived like prisoners there”—an interesting comment for a child living in one of America’s most besieged inner cities. Only one boy said he’d prefer to live in Africa; there, he could see temples and sail in a boat up the Nile.

Throughout the discussion, the students never expanded or challenged one another’s comments. They addressed their responses solely to the teacher, an authority they had apparently been trained to please.

As the last segment of the class indicated, there were in fact tangible rewards for correctly answering questions. We were, in the last 10 minutes, to answer a number of straightforward, factual questions from the text; the winning group would “get treats” the next day. Before we embarked on a frantic search for answers, as if on a game show, the teacher told us that we’d be disqualified if we continued to write after the allotted time had expired.

A math class I attended down the hall was similar in that students were sorted into cooperative learning groups. Here, too, the teacher asked questions that the students attempted to answer. The first one was, “What is a formula?” When the students didn’t respond, she answered her own question: “A specific procedure you use to solve a problem.” Moments later, having presented on the board the equation d = rt, she asked if it could be turned around, tr = d. Still receiving no response, she asked if 2 x 4 was the same as 4 x 2; the students then quickly saw that, yes, the formula could be transposed.

She gave the students a short textbook problem to solve. “When you solve a formula you need information,” she said, walking about the classroom. “Substitute the information you know and then attempt to solve the problem.” Together, the students worked quietly; a few minutes later, the teacher asked for answers. Having received a few correct ones, she asked, before moving on to the next problem, “Is there anyone who doesn’t see how to answer?”

While the lesson was conventionally taught, the veteran teacher generally managed, without threats or bribery, to get the students working hard. Much of this was due to a timely sense of humor and natural rapport with her students. (After assigning a problem, she would say to the class, “When you’re really happy ‘cause you know the answer, smile real big.”) Still, the cooperative learning was less than convincing. At one point, for instance, having assigned a problem, the teacher said, “No helping out now; solve the problem using all your own cholesterol.” Furthermore, the class was generally conducted in a lecture format. “I’ll do the talking,” the teacher said at the beginning of class. “You do the following.”

After class, the teacher told me that the students were grouped according to ability; I had sat with one of the “bright” groups. Earlier, Minor had told me, “We do not have a low group within the building; there’s no tracking.” But I wondered: Was this “cooperative learning” in effect tracking in a new guise?

Of all I saw at Dyett, perhaps nothing more exemplified the gap between reform goals—at least the higher-order thinking component—and actual practice than a 7th grade social studies class. I was particularly surprised by what I observed because the young teacher was, in a lengthy conversation I had with her earlier in the day, both engaging and circumspect, if somewhat divided, about how she wanted to teach.

“When I came here from a Catholic school, I wanted to see what this broken system was all about,” she told me. “These kids grow up so much more quickly. It’s just so hostile out there, and these children are quick to anger. But not toward me. I think they know I absolutely love them. But with each other, they’re quick to snap, to look out for themselves instead of one another. What I’m trying to teach them are techniques on how to get along with people. Like, we can’t say `shut up’ in here; say it, and you leave and reevaluate what you’ve said. Here we talk things out; we don’t accuse. Today, in class, one boy laughed at a girl and another boy said, `That’s not funny to laugh at her.’ This small accomplishment took a year. We take pride in that because when we’re able to get on with another and to trust another we can begin to learn. We need to teach each other and to be one another’s teachers.

“I realized quickly that you had to do more than just teach curriculum. I wanted to teach—and do teach—my kids how to think. I want them to ask good questions, insightful questions. We take on issues like abortion, Medicare. What do Clinton and Perot believe? What’s liberal? What’s conservative? They took surveys on what they consider liberal, moderate, tallied up scores. `If I don’t want to change, what am I?’ we would ask one another.”

She went on to talk of her work with cooperative learning, of problem solving and peacemaking, and I began to wonder how any teacher could fulfill such high expectations. She clearly had invested in the metaphor of what a recent book, Emerging as a Teacher, called “teacher as nurturer,” a metaphor that could easily lead to “burnout”—particularly when she was required to cover a set curriculum. She, in fact, told me that state and board of education mandates created a conflict between what she had to teach and what she wanted to teach. Indeed, this conflict was a recurring theme in our conversation and something she apparently had not resolved. In one breath, she spoke convincingly of “teaching thinking”; in the next, she voiced the effective schools approach, surprising me by talking of the importance of classroom management and “the basics.”

Did her students, I wondered, expect to be talked to?

“That’s a good question,” she said. “They’re real good at doing seat work sometimes. I use it when it needs to be used. Then, I have to do what the board tells us.”

As if to emphasize her compliance with the board, she said: “My reading is a whole lot of back-to-the-basics. I drill basics and spelling. I want my students to read and to read well. I want them to be able to fill out a form, to read directions and follow them. I don’t think drills are negative; it’s a good way to learn.”

Still, she sounded uneasy about much of what she had to do: “I’m teaching analogies today. I told them I’m teaching this because the standardized test we have to take has lots of analogies. It really bothers me that we have to train students to take these tests, but that’s the way it is. So I teach the kids test-taking, process of elimination, even though these tests are biased, unfair. I tell the kids, OK, let’s go ahead and take these tests, but the way you’ll become successful people is by getting along with one another, knowing how to think.”

While she was obviously sincere about teaching children to think, the class I attended was centered on rote learning and familiar time-on-task activities.

I entered the classroom in the midst of yet another contest, over which there was some kind of vociferous dispute between “The Groovers” and “The Dreamers.” The teacher settled it, or at least muted it, by insisting, “I’m boss, that works, and that’s as fair as I can be.”

The contest proceeded with the teacher, to much applause, tallying up correct answers on the blackboard. Typical questions were “What were the names of people who lived in 40,000 B.C.?” and “People in the Stone Age ate predominantly what?” These were, as it turned out, subtitles from textbook chapters converted into questions. There was a logic to this exercise. It would, she told the students, teach them not to be afraid of the textbook. As a matter of fact, many of the classroom activities were centered on the textbook. While some of the activities—having students summarize a main point—could be said to reinforce good reading habits, other activities such as having students reiterate chapter questions, terms, and definitions seemed aimed at teaching students little more than an abiding respect for the authority of the text. “What we’re looking for,” she would repeatedly tell students, “is directly from the text.”

Throughout the class, the teacher was preoccupied with classroom control. When, for instance, the students became mildly disruptive, she said, “Look, I’m being the best captain of the ship I can be.” Then she displayed sudden anger. “If you want to leave, leave,” she told a boy. “Now, do you want to leave or do you want to stay? What do you want to do?” Timidly, the boy said, “Stay.” “Then play by the rules,” she said.

This teacher’s concern with control reminded me of Yvonne Minor’s response when I asked her if school reform had at all changed her relationship with the faculty. “My relationship is pretty much the same,” she had told me. “My teachers still see me as the boss. When the council was first formed, I made sure the teachers knew I was the line person and not the LSC. There is no doubt that the chain of command is me first.”

Minor said this matter-of-factly, without a trace of bravado, and there is no reason why a principal shouldn’t think of herself as “the boss.” After all, under Minor’s stewardship, Dyett had not only become an orderly school but also one that was obviously committed to its students. Yet reform clearly had not altered the school’s hierarchical structure. Teachers—for better or worse— seemed to maintain the same kind of authoritative relationship with their students that the principal had with them.

The class I was visiting rushed onward at a frenetic pace; now, with 10 minutes left, the teacher proclaimed, “I want to teach you what irrigation is.” The students looked bewildered. I had a sense of a teacher scurrying to cover required material, for clearly these urban students, surrounded by miles of asphalt and concrete, could have used some sort of context, some background knowledge, that would have imparted relevance to a concept that must have been wholly unfamiliar. Instead, she had students briefly read in the text about the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why, she then asked, did the students think the farming was so good in Mesopotamia? Astutely, a boy began to talk of how the rivers must have flowed over the banks, but she cut him off. “I want you to hold that thought for now,” she said. Obviously aware of the shortness of time, she directed the students to read a paragraph about irrigation. She then expanded on the textbook definition, talking about the need to dig ditches and construct canals. The class ended with her asking if one of the students wouldn’t stand up and explain irrigation. No one moved. “C’mon, anybody?” she pleaded. When no one yet volunteered, she said, “You can answer now or write about it tonight.”

After class, the teacher was quiet, sullen. She knew things had gone amiss. “That was interesting,” I weakly told her. “No, it was terrible,” she said, seeing through my pitying reassurance.

While the class indeed was a disaster, one must beware of making hasty generalizations based on single visits to classrooms. A teacher can have an “off” day, and the fact that the principal had given me carte blanche just to walk into any of a number of classrooms she had preselected may have made teachers ill-at-ease, especially if they were less than ideally prepared.

Still, the more I thought about the classrooms I had visited at Dyett, the more I wondered if Chicago reform itself, influenced as it was by the effective schools model, hadn’t in some instances unintentionally encouraged conventional rote learning. Reform literature, it is true, is full of talk about problem solving and critical thinking; yet it’s also true that school improvement is primarily gauged by norm-referenced standardized test scores. Almost everyone I spoke to, from academic observers to teachers, spoke (often with great ambivalence) of the importance of test scores. And several LSC members, who are ultimately responsible for evaluating a school, told me that tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills are significant performance indicators—a good way to tell if a school was turning things around.

Whether this is true is highly debatable. But it’s easy to see why an emphasis on test scores is likely to result in teachers being concerned with soliciting “right” answers. Higher test scores mean greater prestige for individual teachers and schools; furthermore, test-induced teaching, because it is typically highly structured, is likely to result in more orderly classrooms.

Beyond this, it is important to note that while reform in Chicago has radically altered school governance, it has done little to assist teachers in any direct way. Class size, with some exceptions, has not been meaningfully reduced, nor do most teachers have additional planning time. Therefore, overburdened teachers are likely to continue to rely on colorless textbooks that provide them with lesson plans, work sheets, and review materials.

It is hard to say whether Chicago school reform will, with the dismantling of a mammoth bureaucracy, eventually result in innovative teaching on a widespread scale. Among the more pessimistic observers is recently retired Yale University professor Seymour Sarason, who for almost 30 years has essentially argued—perhaps most compellingly in his 1990 book, The Predictable Failure of School Reform—that mandated reform initiatives would not alter teaching and learning, regardless of what was attempted. “From what I know of the situation in Chicago,” he said in a telephone interview, iterating the common theme running through his books, “no one is discussing life in the classroom. This is what bothers me, that the issues people are most concerned with—governance, for example—are but surface issues.”

He enumerated a number of things that would invariably undermine high-minded reform ideals: limited human and financial resources, battles among factions with varying vested interests, and the simple, ordinary human resistance to change.

“Look,” Sarason said, “I know some think me dogmatic. But I am the only person who has consistently predicted what would happen to school reform efforts. Let me give you an example I use in all my books. Let’s say you’re observing a 5th grade social studies class in a suburban school setting. In that 45-minute class period, how many questions do you think will have been asked by children? A little less than two. And teachers will typically ask anywhere from 45 to 150. That is life in the classroom. And nobody is talking about it.

“John Goodlad visited countless elementary, middle, and high schools for his book A Place Called School. He’s got a part in there where he says, you know, it really makes no difference whether it’s a good school or bad school, a so-called effective school or not-so-effective school, every damn classroom is the same. Teachers ask questions and students give answers.”

While Sarason’s views seem harsh, it’s true that because the Chicago reforms make the principal responsible for school improvement, the results are likely to be highly uneven. Outstanding principals are hard to find, and while the hope is that weak principals will not have their contracts renewed by the local school councils, it is also highly likely that principals with adroit public relations skills will stay in power, especially if their schools are safe and well-maintained.

Alfred Hess, director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, has followed the intricacies of school reform in Chicago as closely as anyone. He told me that the city’s 542 public schools could roughly be divided into three categories. The first-rung schools, perhaps the top 25 percent, were beginning to implement meaningful classroom changes. The bottom tier— another 25 percent—were perhaps sinking into further decline. The middle 50 percent, the mass of schools that would make or break the reform efforts, were still working on issues of governance—How do we control gangs? How do we get the roof fixed?— but were, for the most part, doing very little with classroom instruction.

Hess placed Dyett in the middle range; while the school is well-run, its test scores (that bugaboo again) have not significantly improved. It seems apparent that if schools like Dyett are to excel, it is going to take more than an outstanding principal and dedicated LSC to turn things around, as important as these things are. It is going to take the one thing that reform movements have continually resisted: a teacher-driven movement in which teachers would strive to reclaim their own classrooms from the tyranny of textbooks and the paradigm of basic skills. As Debbie Walsh of the Chicago Teachers Union told me, reform is less important for what it puts in place than for the obstacles it removes. “Before reform, the centralized bureaucracy was seen as an invincible monolith,” she told me. “People were paralyzed. The reform legislation took the teeth out of the monster in terms of getting decision-making down to the local level. Now, faculty only need to get approval from the LSC; they don’t have to wait five years to get permission from 10 different layers above them.”

Still, inspiring teachers to change isn’t always an easy matter. While the union, for instance, is attempting self-reform, the current contract is still over-managerial and overprotective. And while teachers’ organizations talk incessantly of workshops, seminars, and course work in new methodologies, there is no evidence, as Hess pointed out, that these things will lead to improved instruction. “We give teachers bonuses for going back and getting more course work,” he said. “We could have retrained teachers for what we spent on bonuses.”

I asked Hess if teachers could be compelled to change. “There are mechanisms to compel change,” he said. “The remediation law of ‘85 makes it easier to get rid of incompetent teachers. But this is explosive on morale. Principals are too timid to try. Furthermore, can you really compel teachers to change? Is that how organizations change? Are major industries better off compelling workers to change or retraining them? You know, I don’t think you can compel people to change. The whole [Total Quality Management] movement sweeping through the country today deals with the realization that your only real option is to train and retrain workers.”

The more seriously I thought about Chicago school reform, the more limited its possible accomplishments seemed. Although Hess was not a pessimist like Sarason, he, like Walsh, believed that about the most reform could do was to “get the monkey off people’s backs, to let good people make good things happen.”

Hess had concluded in his February 1992 Midway Report that so far little meaningful classroom change had occurred. Yet he also felt that “the Chicago reforms were right for us.” I asked him how he explained his support for school reform in the face of such little progress. He told me that a certain amount of messiness, even anarchy, had to be tolerated in Chicago before one could expect to see real and lasting changes. “These reforms were the only way to attack a large and unbending bureaucracy. I don’t claim that what we’re doing is the answer for everyone; I don’t think it would have flown in San Diego or Pittsburgh, in places where a strong administration was in place. It wasn’t as if we decided to start from scratch, start with a blank slate, and then design a perfect school system.

“If you start in the abstract, everyone wants to build a pure Platonic model, but if you live in the Aristotelian world, the real world, you have to concentrate on building a momentum for change. You can’t divide up sides in the beginning and say, `Lets get all the good guys on the same side.’ There’s a certain sense, to quote Mao, that you have to have a thousand flowers blooming and build from that. This is what the centrists, who are looking for coherence and alignment, don’t understand. You have to build a dynamic for change before you can worry about coordinating it. We haven’t built a critical mass for change yet. At best, a quarter of our schools are addressing the right problems; these things take time.”

At the end of my day at Dyett, I saw the teacher who had had the disastrous social studies class hug another teacher. It was for comfort, I surmised. She spotted me and looked away. I thought of her as I drove out of the city. The concern and affection she expressed for her students was wholly unaffected; she undoubtedly cared for each and every one of her students. So, in fact, did all the teachers and administrators at Dyett. They maintain close relationships with their students throughout their middle school years, helping them with everything from choosing the right high school to working with them on individual projects. And the fact that Dyett has maintained order and imparted to students a real sense of respect and responsibility is no small feat; it’s an essential first step in all school improvement.

Yet the critical question, whether or not Dyett and schools like Dyett across the nation will utilize the school reform movement to truly change life in the classroom, remains unanswered. Hess, for one, was able to summarize matters optimistically. “At least,” he concluded, “everyone is now talking about how we make educational change happen.”

Vol. 04, Issue 06, Pages 28-32

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