Mike the Mad Biologist

Learning from Real Educational Reform

A while ago, I listed what I thought made Massachusetts’ educational system work:

The recent educational regression reform plan in Massachusetts and the Obama Administration’s educational proposals both seem to misunderstand what has made Massachusetts’ educational system one of the best in the world (and that does far better than would be expected by demography):

1) Content-based standards that teachers can actually use.
2) Rigorous evaluation of whether those standards are being met.
3) A testing/evaluation regime that has been continuously refined and that is well understood, and that has not been dumbed down for political reasons.
4) Retention and training of teachers, not just for ‘good’ schools, but for all schools.
5) Not relying on charter schools, or other subdivision gimmicks to improve test scores (MA has the lowest percentage of students in charter schools in the U.S., and the highest achievement. Go figure).

The NY Times covers the impressive educational gains made in Brockton, MA:

[Teachers] Dr. Szachowicz and Paul Laurino, then the head of the English department — he has since retired — began meeting on Saturdays with any colleagues they could pull together to brainstorm strategies for improving the school.

But teachers unions are evil! Let’s continue (italics mine):

The committee’s first big step was to go back to basics, and deem that reading, writing, speaking and reasoning were the most important skills to teach. They set out to recruit every educator in the building — not just English, but math, science, even guidance counselors — to teach those skills to students.

The committee put together a rubric to help teachers understand what good writing looks like, and began devoting faculty meetings to teaching department heads how to use it. The school’s 300 teachers were then trained in small groups.

Writing exercises took many forms, but encouraged students to think methodically. A science teacher, for example, had her students write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich, starting with opening the cupboard to fetch the peanut butter, through washing the knife once the sandwich was made. Other writing exercises, of course, were much more sophisticated.

You mean we can improve education through curricular improvement? Who coulda thunk it? I thought we had to fire teachers and ‘improve the metrics.’ Maybe not:

Brockton never fired large numbers of teachers, in contrast with current federal policy, which encourages failing schools to consider replacing at least half of all teachers to reinvigorate instruction.

But Dr. Szachowicz and her colleagues did make some teachers uncomfortable, and at least one teacher who refused to participate in the turnaround was eventually dismissed after due process hearings.

And if you don’t treat unions as adversaries and don’t ask them to take a de facto wage cut, good things can happen. For realz:

Teachers unions have resisted turnaround efforts at many schools. But at Brockton, the union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract.

An example: the contract set aside two hours per month for teacher meetings, previously used to discuss mundane school business. The committee began dedicating those to teacher training, and made sure they never lasted a minute beyond the time allotted.

“Dr. Szachowicz takes the contract seriously, and we’ve worked together within its parameters,” said Tim Sullivan, who was president of the local teachers union through much of the last decade.

While article also punctures the myth that smaller schools are necessarily better–something also favored by educational ‘reformers’ (and which, like most neo-liberal ideas, sucks ass)–the article, perhaps inadvertently, makes a very strong case that curricula matter (italics mine):

Brockton could be termed a “turnaround school,” yet its turnaround doesn’t conform to the neat strategies encouraged by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education. Brockton didn’t become a charter school. A new principal didn’t sweep in to enact reform. It wasn’t split into several smaller “academies.” There were no mass layoffs of teachers and the union was not considered an impediment to change. There were no changes in the way teachers are paid. The school wasn’t shutdown and reopened.

Instead, motivated by tough new state graduation requirements, a committee of teachers came together to restructure Brockton’s curriculum around reading and writing. Every course at the school–including gym, math, and science–was rejiggered to include writing, with intensive training for all teachers in how to teach and evaluate it. Student tracking was mostly eliminated; instead, all students were expected to perform at higher levels.

The reforms at Brockton High School were focused on curriculum and instruction, not management.

One of the reasons I can’t stand the educational ‘reformers’ is that they think the problems our students face are primarily a result of labor-management relations: if the workers had less power, things would work better. But, to the extent that poor performance can be fixed within the schools, it’s typically not a worker issue. Sometimes, it’s a managerial issue, in that the managers (i.e., administration) are inept. But often, it is curricular. Teachers need retraining (especially in the sciences)–and sometimes, to be frank, they need some remedial training. Sure, there are miserable do-nothing teachers. But most teachers want to do their jobs, and do them well.

It’s not neo-liberal* policy, but, in Brockton anyway, it’s what worked.

*Gimme that ol’ time liberalism…


  1. #1 joemac53
    September 30, 2010

    In my high school it became too much work to be a lazy-ass teacher. Avoiding improvement was harder than working to get better. Some people left the profession, some took early retirement. As I left school after 35 years, I felt confident that the folks still at school (even the young whipper-snappers) would be doing a great job. I will never say “That place went to hell when I left!”.
    (I’m a Mass guy, Mike)

  2. #2 Ryan
    October 1, 2010

    This is all very right… but it’s hard for politicians to get this, particularly when instead of working with teachers to improve education, they’re so keen to work against them. You’d think, because of how well known the adage “don’t shoot the messenger” is in life, it would be uncommon. Sadly, the “messengers” are usually the first to be shot.