Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Empowering teachers key to academic achievement

Earlier in this decade the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its allies on the Milwaukee Public School Board, Bruce Thompson, Jeff Spence and Ken Johnson, promoted small schools as the key to improving the academic performance of Milwaukee's public schools.

This was part of a national initiative funded with hundreds of millions of dollars by Microsoft's Bill Gates. Gates himself has now concluded that the effort was ill conceived. He acknowledged this when he told the delegates at the American Federation of Teachers national convention in Seattle that he now understands that empowering teachers is the key to reforming urban education. "If reforms aren't shaped by teachers' knowledge and experience, they're not going to succeed, "he said.

Members of the Gates Foundation staff later met with AFT executives, and the two teams discussed ways to collaborate.

The MJS editors have not been as self-critical as Gates, although their constant advocacy of a mayoral takeover of MPS suggests that they recognize that simply changing the size of schools has little to do with engaging and educating students.

Unlike Gates, however, the MJS continues to promote solutions like the mayoral takeover that at best leave teachers on the sidelines and at worse make them the enemy of education reform.

In Brockton, Massachusetts a different approach was taken. Rather than breaking up a large school, linking teachers' compensation to student performance or firing "bad" teachers, faculty were empowered to take ownership over their school and its curriculum. The results: a failing public school with 4100 students has become one of Massachusetts highest performing schools.

According to of the New York Tines:

A decade ago, Brockton High School was a case study in failure. Teachers and administrators often voiced the unofficial school motto in hallway chitchat: students have a right to fail if they want. And many of them did — only a quarter of the students passed statewide exams. One in three dropped out.

Then Susan Szachowicz and a handful of fellow teachers decided to take action. They persuaded administrators to let them organize a schoolwide campaign that involved reading and writing lessons into every class in all subjects, including gym.

Their efforts paid off quickly. In 2001 testing, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts. The gains continued. This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools. And its turnaround is getting new attention in a report, “How High Schools Become Exemplary,” published last month by Ronald F. Ferguson, an economist at Harvard who researches the minority achievement gap.

What makes Brockton High’s story surprising is that, with 4,100 students, it is an exception to what has become received wisdom in many educational circles — that small is almost always better.

The Times goes on to point out;

Brockton never fired large numbers of teachers, in contrast with current federal policy, which encourages failing schools to consider replacing at least half of all teachers to reinvigorate instruction....

Teachers unions have resisted turnaround efforts at many schools. But at Brockton, the union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract.

An example: the contract set aside two hours per month for teacher meetings, previously used to discuss mundane school business. The committee began dedicating those to teacher training, and made sure they never lasted a minute beyond the time allotted.

“Dr. Szachowicz takes the contract seriously, and we’ve worked together within its parameters,” said Tim Sullivan, who was president of the local teachers union through much of the last decade.

There is a lesson here. Are the MPS board and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel paying attention?

The entire article is linked.

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