The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Still Waiting for the People Who Run Our Schools To Get Smart

on January 17, 2018

Over the past week I struggled to find something worth writing about. There was nothing about education in the sources I usually search . Fortunately, however, this week “The New York Times” came up with two articles that were not related, but gave me the opportunity once again to complain about how little the people running our schools—public and private–know about teaching and learning.

The first article was at the top of the “Times” opinion page and promised a lot with its title: “Some Bright Hopes for New York’s Schools”. Eagerly I began to read it—and found nothing there to give anyone hope. All the article offered was a list of possible candidates to succeed the current schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, who is retiring.

Even before naming and describing the list of candidates, the writer of the article persuaded me that there was not much hope of positive changes:

“The Mayor has described his mission over the next four years as promoting equity and excellence, but those goals remain largely out of reach, even as test scores have inched up. In fact, the city needs to move urgently on three fronts: ending profound racial segregation; closing failing schools while opening better ones; and finding more effective ways to train good teachers, retain the best teachers and move the worst ones out of the system.”

After reading that opinion of what needs to be done to improve the city’s schools, I didn’t bother to read the list of six candidates or descriptions of their experience and  strengths. No one, despite having a wealth of experience and skills, is going to be able to do what the Mayor or the writer of this article want. But even if someone could, it would not make New York’s schools what they should be.

What any school district leader must understand and work with are the strengths, needs, and culture of each school. One school may need a lot of physical improvements, another a different type of curriculum; still another smaller class sizes, extra health services, more recreational activities for students, and a close relationship with students’ families. But what is most important for any school are teachers who are smart, have similar teaching styles, and want to work together.

The current weakness of New York schools is not untrained or incompetent teachers, as the writer sees them, but ones who have not been allowed to work together and with their principal to create a system that fits the backgrounds of the school’s students and serves their needs.

The second article, “Can a ‘No Excuses’ Charter Teach Students to Think for Themselves?” was also about making changes in schools, but this time it was a group of charter schools named “Achievement First.” It had come to the attention of the school’s leaders that fewer than a third of their high school graduates were earning college degrees. Although the graduates had no trouble being accepted at colleges because of their high-test scores and good grades, soon many of them were dropping out. Apparently, they couldn’t handle the independent decisions and responsibilities expected of college students.

After recognizing this problem, the leaders of “Achievment First” schools decided to design a new school model that would maintain the current practices of having strict rules and high expectations, while encouraging student independence and a sense of personal identity. The new model they decided on in 2016 is called “Greenfield” and is being tried out in several charter schools across the country. What it uses are short-time programs outside the regular classroom that focus on students setting goals for themselves, using online teaching tools, or being allowed to have “expeditions,” which are two week long, three hour courses that students are allowed to choose for themselves three times a year.

After two years of this experiment using the new model there is little data to suggest whether or not it is working. Nevertheless the leaders feel confident about their progress and plan to open more Greenfield schools.

While I think “Achievement First” schools are making some progress with their new programs, they are only “a drop in the bucket” compared to the regular year long courses that are still highly structured and firmly disciplined. In those classes students never get to express their opinions or create anything of their own. I would not be surprised if the high college drop out rates persist. I also suspect that those few students who do finish college will not be fit for jobs that demand creativity and persistence.

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