Our school has had one goal recently: change. All three of our schools have been award winning schools, and while two of our schools had seen some demographic shift in the past 20 years, this hadn’t been ignored, and all three schools posted metrics that were above the state and national average. Still, we got a new superintendent, and he started gutting the place and establishing his vision of the schools.
One of the things I learned going through leadership is the contrast between being a custodian and creating a legacy. Good administrators are custodians. They realize that they are in their leadership position for only a certain time, and that their department/school/district is not their personal property. They do want to be people of vision who identify and fix problems. People who create legacies are people who look at their department/school/district as their personal property to be shaped as they see fit with little or no concern for the future beyond their personal reputation (many retired superintendents do go into academia and “I created change” is a great resumé starter). We were advised to be the former and not the latter. Right now we have a superintendent that is the latter. Change for the sake of change … he speaks of data driven education, but then ignores data when it is convenient. Before making change, he is careful to consult with none of the people involved to make sure that he is looking at all of the facets of the problem. It is classic poor leadership. Since May 1, we have lost 4 math teachers and 3 science teachers, something that marks an unheard of migration from our district in the 20 years I have been there.
I bring this up because I was reading an article about a school that seemed to have set a course not so dissimilar from ours. Hopefully you can read that article, but to give an idea of what they are doing:
- Classes are not based on ability. Each class is differentiated so that students in the same class may be earning honors credit or not based on what they choose to do.
- The school was set up to specifically create a diverse student population within Denver’s “Choice” system.
- All students would be taking International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. For those not familiar, these are a not quite as popular alternative to Advanced Placement (AP) classes that have caught on more in urban settings.
- Grades would be based more on competency than work. The teacher sets a base level for a skill based on “mastery” and “competency”. The student works the skill, an dis evaluated as master, competent, or needs improvement, and the student keeps working until they get the grade they want. This is a simplified version, and different school approach this grading style slightly differently, but you get the gist of it.
- There is no time limit on establishing competency. The teacher may introduce a skill in October, and that student may choose to not get around to working on it until January because they were working on something else first. In other words: the student determines when they are assessed, and except for the end of the year, the teacher cannot set a deadline.
- The school would start later (8:45) and stay much later to give a longer school day, and the year would also run longer.
- While there would be a principal, the duties of secretary, guidance counselors, and assistant principal would be distributed among the teachers (staff evaluations would also be peer evaluations, meaning teachers would also need to do that).
On paper, this looks progressive and sounds pretty good. In practical terms, it is problematic. How problematic:
- The principal was gone after two months (related to an unnamed discipline issue).
- An assistant principal and secretary were added to take up some of the work slack from the teachers who (spoiler alert) were likely being overworked)
- The school changed it start time to an earlier time because of transportation issues.
- Over half of the staff left after the first year.
- The population of enrolled Caucasian and African-American students is dropping for next year by about one-third each.
They say Utopia isn’t built in a day. However, any competent person could have predicted much of this failure long before the school opened. The school’s central thrust has been diversity and de-tracking students (a nightmare for teachers trying to track progress and communicate with students and parents). What went wrong.
- (Here’s the biggy): Administrators realize the weaknesses of their plan … they aren’t ignorant. They also know that if people sit down and analyze those plans they will easily pick them apart, so the trick is to ram the changes through before people can strenuously object by presenting evidence. Remember saying “I started this radical new school” looks wonderful when applying for an assistant professorship. The fact that the school damn near collapsed after one year isn’t something you need to mention … and you can always blame the Board/teachers/parents in the interview.
- Much of the change wasn’t even planned out. The article was clear about this: teachers were not only expected to teach five diverse classes and advise kids and help run the place, but were also planning out how this was supposed to work. Parents and students don’t want to hear “we are working on this as we go along” because that reeks of a fly-by-night unprofessional organization. Why is it this way? See #1: if the planners had given the proper amount of time to plan everything out (at least two years), it would have been time for people to realize that this wasn’t likely as Utopian as the paper makes it sound like, and might have stopped it from getting off the ground.
- No level of communication can properly prepare students and parents (especially parents) for what is happening. Schooling is one of those things that essentially we all kind of get. Even when we improve how we teach, the idea of kids sit down and take tests or submit to practical assessments of skill and earn points and we compute a percentage are pretty universally understood. Now enter a whole new world: students, a large number f whom are notorious for not being able to plan time well, are in an environment where they never really have to manage their time, because they can refuse assessments as long as they want. The meaning of grades, even on a “competency” scale start to lose meaning, and when teachers need to talk to parents about progress, more often than not the language becomes far more imprecise because the teacher has no real idea how the kid is doing (and the whole point of competency based grading is that it is supposed to be more precise). At least part of this school’s problems seemed to be parents who were sold a bill of goods, and part way in began complaining and demanding the school board enforce changes (which they started to do).
- A pint can’t hold a quart. You simply cannot expect a human being to competently teach five classes where students are working on different levels of work that you need to plan on the fly, and then expect them to simultaneously figure out how to run the school, and then run the school. This was a doomed proposition from the start and should never have been approved. This is the one thing that our school district is not doing, because the superintendent is in fact micromanaging most things, and our principal is micromanaging most of the rest. In an academic setting, you do need to allow teachers a degree of freedom to teach and experiment to find what works for students, and to learn from each other. But while micromanaging is grossly unhealthy in an academic setting, handing the reigns to a runaway horse to the staff is not a good alternative.
Why is this being permitted? Simply put, there are not enough people yelling “STOP!”. In a politically charged environment where you can get 5,000 anti-Trump protesters to show up at the drop of a pin, people do not come out and check on the people lording over their children. School boards are often trained to listen to their superintendent (In Illinois, newly elected school board members are mandated to attend training before assuming office … this training is run by (wait for it) the Illinois Superintendent’s Association, which teaches Board members to listen to one person and one person only … The only way to snap Boards out of their hypnosis on this is to have a lot of angry parents show up to Board Meetings and say “NO!” Board members are politicians, and if enough people show up to force their hand, they will back down.
Our society needs more sane people to show up to School Board meetings and then question what is happening and sound the alarm when something bad is happening.