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JISHOU, HUNAN — From my distant perch here, I’ve heard the news about the film, Waiting for Superman*, which ballyhoos the charter-school model as the solution for America’s supposedly failing public schools.

Oprah, queen of fads-du-jour, had the filmmakers on her show. Bill and Melinda Gates are involved. It’s the latest “big thing” in education, which has been plagued by about a hundred “big things” in as many years, all promising to solve problem X, where stands for the Dilemma of the Moment.

I haven’t seen the flick, but as they say, I’ve read the reviews. While some reviews just gush about the film, a more nuanced review is in The Nation. I encourage you to read it, as a counterpoint to the mostly mindless adulation of the film and its rather one-sided message.

Today I read an article in The New York Times about a huge public high school in Boston that got results, not by adopting the education fad-du-jour, but by doing things the old-fashioned way. Instead of throwing up their hands and declaring “The public school is dead!” teachers at Brockton High School rolled up their sleeves and restructured the school’s instructional plan.

Brockton was among Massachusett’s lowest performing schools, based on state language arts exam scores. A team of teachers, with the support of the principal, proposed a school-wide emphasis on teaching core concepts of reading, writing, speaking and reasoning. Students in every single class, including art and PE, had lessons in at least one of the four core concepts. The results were a dramatic increase in the students’ state test scores.

The sudden spike attracted the attention of researchers at Harvard, who study the performance of public schools with large low achieving minority populations. Brockton is included in a recent report (Note: PDF file) on 15 highly successful schools, more than half of which are public schools. Brockton is the largest, with 4,100 students.

The Harvard report, “How High Schools Become Exemplary,” pinpointed five common characteristics of the 15 schools, which include public, parochial, private and charter schools.
Five Steps to Improvement

  1. Someone took responsibility to lead the change process.
  2. There were mission statements and focused priorities.
  3. There were strategies and plans for high quality adult (teacher and parent) learning.
  4. There were clear and usable criteria for judging quality work.
  5. The plan was skillfully and relentlessly implemented.

Given that change can often feel threatening, the researchers also identified six “fears,” and discussed how the various schools addressed them.

  1. Wasting time and energy (teachers are pretty cynical about education fads-du-jour).
  2. Losing autonomy (Teachers like to run their own show in the classroom).
  3. Experiencing incompetence when trying new things (Old dogs and new tricks).
  4. Being socially isolated (The old “sucking up to the principal” stigma.)
  5. Experiencing unpleasant surprises (Sometimes new things just don’t work).
  6. Having more work to do (Believe it or not, teachers don’t have much free time).

Not surprisingly, these are the same challenges and fears that every classroom teacher faces with his or her students. A good part of being an effective teacher is to have a clear goal for the entire class, clear expectations for all the students, and consistent benchmarks for assessment, while at the same time being encouraging and supportive. The teacher is the leader, taking responsibility for teaching the class, but at the same time, a good teacher should also inspire the students to be responsible for their own education.

Expand this model classroom environment to an entire school, the report seems to say, and you will have an effective school. It takes the cooperation — and the hard work — of everyone, administration as well as teachers (and unions). It requires them, as leaders, to bring students and parents on board, and to explain that, in education, there are seldom quick results. As Brockton High School demonstrates, it takes at least two years before improvements can be seen.

Patience and determination are the way to success, not a wholesale dismissal of the public school system. While charter schools have been successful, not all are, a point which Waiting for Superman glosses over. In fact, some charter schools are no more effective in educating their students than public schools. The answer is not to privatize education, but to take what we already have and work really hard to make it effective. Politicians and right-wing nutjobs continue to tear down public school teachers and school boards for their supposed failures and shortcomings, but in fact these educators are the very people who can turn America’s schools around. Change can happen from within. The teachers at Brockton chose to ignore the naysayers, and took a pig’s ear and turned it into a silk purse.

They didn’t stand around waiting for Superman to arrive.
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* [Update at 9:26 pm China Time] Since writing this post, I have learned that one of the producers of Waiting for Superman is Walden Media, owned by Philip Anschutz. Anchutz is a rich, right-winger who has funded, among other things, the Discovery Institute, the Intelligent Design “think tank” in Seattle. More details are at Daily Kos. What it means, I am not sure, but the right wing — and especially the Tea Party — have lately been very anti-public schools.

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