There is a notion, clearly articulated in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, that schools will improve merely by raising standards and holding school districts accountable when they do not meet the goals. Despite virtually no evidence that this is successful, the trend continues. Politicians and state and federal education departments want to believe this notion for a number of reasons. For one, it’s simple and easy. The federal or state government merely has to act as if the schools are marionettes, and with the strings being the proper incentives or punishments. With a pull here and a tug there, every school will fall in line.
There are many problems with this approach. For one, it is not certain that the tools being used are valid or reliable. Most approaches measure math and verbal skills, not because they are necessarily the most important things for students to succeed after high school, but because they are the easiest to measure. Not everything that can be measured is good and not everything that is good can be measured. Data should inform instruction, not be a goal unto itself. Data is easily manipulated and short-term goals can actually be counterproductive to long term objectives.
Perhaps most problematic is that this approach leads to lazy administrators who view their success as being managers rather than educators. I worked in one school where this was clearly the case. The department supervisors were assistant principals who had no content area expertise (e.g. having an English Department be supervised by someone with no background or experience in the subject), saw oversight of instruction as the last of their priorities and rarely stepped into a classroom except for mandated observations. Observations were heavily weighted on things like whether bulletin boards were attractive and students were kept quiet. Compliance was highly sought, any dissent was stifled and morale was low.
Three years ago I applied to work at Morristown High School. I really liked the place, but had second thoughts about leaving the place I had spent most of my career. But Morristown was persistent calling me a half-dozen times to reconsider. When I did, I met with the principal and superintendent who told me their goal to develop of “dream team” of high school administrators. I decided to take the job. They had put together a team of experts in each content area who acted with a unified purpose of having every student achieve what was possible. The principal was amazing. Every day, he would spend two hours visiting classes. He knew every teacher and their teaching style and their ability in an intimate way. He also knew almost every student and he was truly appreciated and adored.
Administrative meetings were actually a joy to attend. They were light-hearted but very serious. Every issue, every question, every decision came down to the same criteria: was it best for kids and for student learning? Dissent was not only valued, it was encouraged. Loyalty meant keeping the principal informed, not just complying without giving informed opinions. Evaluation was hard work. We had to do continual walk-throughs. Evaluations needed to be detailed and every statement needed to be justified by what we saw and experienced. Every effort was made to support teaching and learning. The highest priority was placed on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and challenged. When we received an influx of unaccompanied, undocumented minors, resources, including bilingual social workers, counselors, and parent coordinators were added. The guidance department made sure to hire a bilingual receptionist when an opening occurred.
Test scores proved that the approach worked. The percentage of students in AP courses was much higher than high schools with similar demographics and the scores were much higher than the national averages and what would be predicted by other factors. At-risk students, including the recent undocumented students, graduated at similar rates to other students. Teachers felt valued and supported and were willing to go the extra mile to ensure student success.
Putting education and students first and implementing the hard work of carrying it out on a day-by-day basis is what will lead to success. The illusion that there are short cuts to this goal by devaluing and threatening teachers and demanding compliance with harsh threats is counterproductive. To lead to the best educational goals, one needs to do the hard work of being an educator. Morristown High achieves the goals of NCLB and Race to the Top the right way, by creating an educational community where students and teachers matter.