How Georgia Could Turn Around Turnaround Schools

Georgia, like other states, has identified schools whose students and teachers have been labeled failures on the basis of high-stakes tests. These tests measure the narrowest and possibly the least important aspects of schooling, namely the ability to answer multiple choice questions on the lowest level of content in math, or science, social studies or English language arts.

I argue here that curriculum development and advanced sabbatical month-long staff seminars in the context of the elimination of high-stakes tests would do more to help struggling schools than punishing them.  Students in these schools are quite capable of engaging in projects, original work in art, music and science,  hands-on minds-on learning, as well as learning how to learn.  Using inquiry-based learning, and steering away from a teach to the test mantra will go along way not only in so-called “turnaround” schools, but any school.

Many of  the labeled “failing” schools end up being closed, in others the principal and at least half the teachers are replaced by unlicensed teachers from Teach for America (TFA). Closing or labeling schools alters the ecology of these communities, and instead of providing resources, and creating opportunities for curriculum innovation and advanced staff development, these plans fail to discuss the real problems–poverty, recreating uninteresting curricula, and using punishments and rewards to control the system.

Our schools can not solve the problem of poverty.  But if schools were integral and public spaces of its community, then the school would be a place that parents send their children to uncover their natural abilities and interests, and pursue learning about the world, and enriching each other.

But we have created an environment in which success in school is based for the most part on  high-stakes testing.  There isn’t a need for high-stakes tests.  The scores that are generated from these tests do nothing to improve individual student learning, and do not give feedback to teachers to improve instruction.  These tests only serve the state as way to create a metric that is used to punish or reward schools, teachers and students.  Do we send our children to school to take tests? Is that why we send our children to school?

In the “Defies Measurement” film (5 minutes) that follows, Shannon Puckett exposes the damage caused by high-stakes testing on our children, teachers, schools and communities.  Shannon started this film in 2004, but for many reasons, never finished the film.  However, now she is reaching out to everyone to give a small amount of money to fund the completion of the film.  She is close to the amount she needs to raise. (Update: the monetary goal was reached)  This short clip will give you insight into the film, and in it you will hear from amazing teachers and top researchers who tell stories and give evidence that the present era of test-based reform is damaging students.

Schools should not be labeled failing in the first place. The measurement used is a sliver of the goals of schooling in a democratic society. As stated in the film, no other comparable country fails it’s students or schools on the basis of these narrow and unreliable tests.

The schools in these communities need the same kind of education that takes place in schools where students are successful–typically those in affluent neighborhoods.

As Lisa Delpit says, kids need good teaching in the context of an interesting and diverse curriculum. They do not need neophyte teachers who’ve been trained to teach to the test.  They need teachers who as Lisa Delpit puts it are “warm demanders.”

In her more recent book, Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, Dr. Delpit provides the insight to understand what schooling should be in public schools.  She says that the teacher is crucial in teaching poor children.

But she doesn’t advocate using tests to try and name so-called bad or not so good teachers.  No, she reminds us how important teachers are in the lives of children.  To hold schools hostage prevents teachers from doing the sorts of things that she advocates.

Dr. Delpit says:

And so, to my students who are teachers, and to all teachers, I reiterate: Your work does matter more than you can imagine. Your students, particularly if they are low-income children of color, cannot succeed without you. You are their lifeline to a better future. If you put energy and expertise into your teaching, learn from those who know your students best, make strong demands, express care and concern, engage your students, and constantly ensure that your charges are capable of achieving, then you are creating for your students, as Professor Bill Trent once said about his own warm demander teachers, “a future we could not even imagine for ourselves.”  Delpit, Lisa (2012-03-20). “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children (p. 88). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

With the funds that Georgia has allocated in its Race to the Top (RT3), curriculum development combined with sabbatical advanced staff development seminars would infuse enthusiasm and new confidence in the faculty and would result in a school culture of innovation, hope and change.  Closing schools or replacing them by firing principals and teachers and hiring inexperienced teachers is not in the best interests of students.  We need to preserve our schools, not abandon them.

Further investigation into why we find ourselves labeling schools as failures needs to be made.  Why is it that most of these schools are in urban districts?  Why aren’t these schools provided the same resources as schools in other parts of the same district?  Why do we think it is acceptable to close or convert schools to charters run by outsiders who have little vested interest in the community? Why?

For further reading:

The Case of iBooks in Cobb County Schools

This is the county in Georgia where I reside. I followed the story in the local newspaper on the Cobb County School District’s decision to provide Apple i-Books for all teachers, and students in grades 6 -12, beginning with an experiemental phase beginning next school year in four of the district’s high schools. It created an outrageous stir, especially with the editors of the Marietta Daily Journal. Not only did the paper print many negative letters to the editor (as expected), but the editorials were biased against the implementation of the program in the schools. Fortunately, the district’s superintendent held firm under intense criticism, and the first phase of the program, known as the “Power to Learn” will soon be underway. In my opinion, this is a couageous undertaking in light of our experiences with technology in schools. Putting iBooks in the hands of every student is a powerful idea, but will require a shift in the way teaching takes place, day-to-day. For example, the iBooks, with the district’s move to create a wireless environment, will enable teachers to link their students with students in other parts of the world in a variety of projects. One example of this is the work of I*EARN, which enables teachers and students to collaborate on a variety of projects in writing, language, science, geography, history and culture, to name a few. We’ll discuss other aspects computers in schools at this site. This gets us started.