There’s School Reform, and There’s School Reform

This video came to my email inbox today –“directly” from Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education and major proponent of testing as a means of making teachers hold higher expectations for poor kids.   The subject line was “I couldn’t be more proud”.  “I”, as if he could take credit for this.

The things that the teachers and principal say at the beginning are almost a verbatim response to Arne’s translation of the  critiques of Race to the Top and other reform movements that insist that we ignore the very high rates of childhood poverty in the U.S.,

In this video and in the text of the email, the principal says “we don’t believe poverty is destiny” but I know of no one who does believe that.  Instead, many of us argue that the stresses of poverty do affect kids’ engagement in schools (and, that affect the quality of schools they attend, since poor kids live in poor communities with poorly funded schools)  and the resources that parents have to support learning, and that we really should address poverty as a moral and economic issue, not simply as something we can test our way out of.

But, I believe that in watching this video, I’m to understand that this is the kind of school all poor kids could attend if only we believed in Arne and dug in to prep kids for the many many tests that he supports.

The teachers say over and over that they have high expectations for students, and that’s what makes the difference, that they work hard and believe in children in children and their potential.    I honestly do believe that this is a great staff.

Presumably, I’m supposed to understand that the problem is that in other schools, teachers do not do or believe these things.

Yet I saw so much more in this video.

For one, Justin Minkel, one of the teachers who speaks here, is a gentle and articulate critic of many of Duncan’s core policies and mandates. This school is not the exemplar of what might happen if only we did what Arne would have us do.

For another, there are resources in this school that are very, very rare.

At 1:00 minute and again later, we see children working on what appear to be MacBook Airs.  I teach about tech in schools, and I know of almost no schools that can purchase MacBook Airs and all the creative potential they provide. Instead, thousands of schools are scrambling to buy case of much cheaper and much less functional Chrome Books to meet looming mandates that kids all take new standardized tests on computers — with no boost in funding for technology.

I see an older but beautifully maintained school.  Where I live, thousands of children are going to class in temporary “portables” jammed into playground space because though the population is booming and the economy is doing well, there is no funding for new schools.  In one recent construction levy campaign, a national organization, fueled by Duncan’s rhetoric of “failing schools”, funded the opposition and they won. The levy was defeated and more kids are in portables.

Most stunning, at 1:29. is a glimpse of the Jones Elementary Wellness Center.  It’s easy to miss because at this point, the principal is talking about the importance of data in everything we do and never mentions the Wellness Center.

There is another kind of data at work here: We had excellent studies a generation ago about the effectiveness of school-based health services and “full service schools” where low-income kids and their families could access a range of community services. We knew 25 years ago that these sorts models for schools boosted attendance, achievement, and family well-being.

But in spite of this “data”, these sorts of schools were never funded.

So how did  this school come to have a  health center?  And find the room for it?

A young teacher mentions that if she’s facing challenges in teaching something, she can just think “who can I go to watch, where can I go for help”.  Another mentions teachers from another school coming to observe them. This sort of professional collaboration is simply taken for granted in other fields.

Nearly 30 years ago, I was part of a research project that demonstrated the importance of teachers having time during the school day to collaborate with one another and spend time in each others’ classrooms, not just squeeze collaboration into 30 minute planning periods and one -day- a -month in service meetings.  In higher achieving countries (at least as measured under tests that Arne values), teachers spend less time with children and more time with professional collaboration. In some, teachers regularly plan together, rotate through each others’ classrooms to observe variations on what was planned, and then meet again to analyze what they observed.

There is no routine funding for any of this in U.S. schools.  I love that these teachers talk about this collaboration.

And it seems fair to ask how they fund this, because the traditional school day in the U.S. was deliberately designed to isolate teachers from one another, as factory workers don’t interact with one another but merely enact the orders delivered from above.

We see teachers collaborating around tablets and laptops.  One of my favorite teacher bloggers in another state writes often about being able to access their “data” only in huge notebooks, not digitally where they could do better analysis and planning. Unlike every other profession I know, teachers are not routinely provided with the basic technology needed to do their jobs.

So yes, this seems like a great school.

But for Arne Duncan to claim that he’s proud of this school, as if they’re accomplishing these things because, not in spite of Race to the Top and NCLB is disingenuous at best.

But I can imagine someone outside of Education seeing this, assuming as Arne wants us to assume that if teachers just believe in their students, all will be well in the lives of poor kids  — never mind health care, resources, space, funded time for collaboration.  This video infers that the only difference between this school and others is the will of its staff, and that is simply untrue.

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