A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Monday, August 09, 2010

How to deal with failing schools: a continued conversation

Remember our discussion of failing schools and layoffs a few days ago?

Now listen to this idea from Boston, via the NY Times:
Earlier this year Massachusetts enacted a law that allowed districts to remove at least half the teachers and the principal at their lowest-performing schools. The school turnaround legislation aligned the state with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program incentives and a chance to collect a piece of the $3.4 billion in federal grant money.

From Washington this makes abundant good sense, a way to galvanize rapid and substantial change in schools for children who need it most.

In practice, on the ground, it is messy for the people most necessary for turning a school around — the teachers — and not always fair.

Often the decisions about which teachers will stay and which will go are made by new principals who may be very good, but don’t know the old staff. “We had several good teachers asked to leave,” said Heather Gorman, a fourth-grade teacher who will be staying at Blackstone Elementary here, where 38 of 50 teachers were removed. “Including my sister who’s been a special-ed teacher 22 years.”

And while tenured teachers who were removed all eventually found positions at other Boston schools, it’s unsettling. “Very upsetting,” said Ms. Gorman. “A lot of nervousness for teachers.”

Blackstone’s new principal, Stephen Zrike, who made the decisions, agrees. “I’d say definitely good teachers were let go,” Mr. Zrike said, explaining that a lot of his decisions were driven by particular skills he wanted for teams he was assembling. “I wouldn’t doubt a lot will be excellent in other places.”

And how much to blame are teachers for the abysmal test scores at Orchard Gardens, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade turnaround school here, that’s had six principals since opening seven years ago?

The goal of the turnaround legislation is to get the best teachers into the schools with the neediest children, but often, experienced teachers get worn down by waves and waves of change and are reluctant to try again.

“You fear being pulled by the latest whim,” said Ana Vaisenstein, who has taught in Boston for 12 years.

“Sometimes in education, there are so many changes being made at once, the important things get lost,” said Courtney Johnson, a five-year veteran.

Asked about applying to one of the city’s 12 turnaround schools, Lisa Goncalves, a first-grade teacher with seven years’ experience, said, “I’d be hesitant to go alone.”

And that is the simple idea behind a new program that is being used to staff three of the turnaround schools in Boston: you don’t go alone. Rather than have the principal fill the slots one by one, the Boston schools have enlisted the help of a nonprofit organization, Teach Plus, to assemble teams of experienced teachers who will make up a quarter of the staff of each turnaround school come fall.

“It’s like jump-starting a culture at these schools,” said Carol R. Johnson, Boston superintendent of schools. “In turnaround schools, you often wind up with a high portion of first- and second-year teachers, so you need some experience, a team of teachers who are enthusiastic and idealistic.”

Said Celine Coggins, the chief executive of Teach Plus, which developed the idea and is financed by the Gates Foundation: “I think teachers want to know they’re not going into a school alone as a hero.”

The teams will spend two weeks working together this summer. While teaching a full load, they will serve as team leaders for their grades and specialty areas like English immersion. They will work 210 days versus the normal 185 and get paid $6,000 extra a year.

On average they have eight years’ experience.

There were 142 applicants — from as far as Arizona, Florida and Nevada — for the 36 positions. Everyone offered a job took it. Sixty-eight percent came from Boston public schools, 18 percent from charter schools.

Their credentials are impressive. Ms. Vaisenstein, who will teach English immersion at Blackstone, has been in education 33 years, speaks Spanish and French, understands Portuguese and directed a Head Start program in Boston for five years. Lillian Pinet, an 18-year veteran, is fluent in Spanish and Amharic, an Ethiopian language, and teaches an education course at Boston College. Sylvia Yamamoto, who will teach third grade, is a 20-year veteran who taught English to foreign students at Harvard for years....

There's more at the link.

Now this plan shows some serious consideration about how to change the culture of a school. It is not enough to replace the teachers (and apparently keep a principal for more than a year at a time). You have to put in place a cadre of seasoned, EXPERIENCED veteran teachers-- and you have to do what you must to make them want to take on that challenge. The administration has to agree to listen to what that cadre of master teachers has to say.

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