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Saturday Solutions: Humanize Schools

October 9, 2010

One main reason I stopped believing in the dominant narrative about school reform is because I experienced firsthand how top-down policy churn impacts teachers’ ability to focus on our actual work. When people who are too far removed from the classroom attempt to control what’s happening there, problems arise. Standardization becomes virtually irresistible, because it makes it so much easier to perform “quality control” (which then ends up being more about conformity than actual quality). And of course, there has to be some way of tracking what’s going on, so documenting and reporting on your work becomes an urgent responsibility. This documentation has to be friendly to the non-educators who increasingly run schools, too, which means it will most likely be reductive in nature.

That, of course, has the unfortunate consequence of turning principals and district personnel into paper pushers, teachers into paper generators, and students into numbers (the flip-side of what politicians call “accountability”). For example, there were several days last year where virtually all of the teachers in our school had to hire substitutes to cover our classes while we worked elsewhere in the building, administering tests and finishing forms in order to meet district and state reporting deadlines. While there are some great substitutes out there, for the most part, sub days are days lost to instruction. It’s simply not the same to have a stranger step in and attempt to pick up where you left off with your students. (And it doesn’t help the substitutes any when bored, stressed out, over-tested kids look at them and think “PLAYTIME!”)

It’s bad enough that teachers often have to take this kind of work home in order to have time to complete it and plan good lessons– that depletes our energy, which makes us less alert and able to respond to children’s learning needs during the school day. But when these requirements (along with the time lost to testing) literally steal instructional time, it becomes all the more important for us to stop and examine if what has been sacrificed is worth what’s been gained.

Apparently, what has been gained is very little (for the kids, anyway– if you make tests or data tracking systems, you’ve gained quite a bit!). All of these attempts to track and verify what is going on in classrooms have not delivered meaningful improvements in learning. The first 30+ years of this experiment with increasingly centralized control and oversight has been a period of increased dropout rates and high remediation rates for new college students. Twelfth-grade scores on our most well-reputed test (the NAEP) have moved just one point in reading and two points in math. As someone who was personally told to spend time on worthless assessments that generate graphs at the expense of meaningful ones that diagnose reading difficulties, I’m not surprised.

This is counterproductive. How can we hope to improve schools if teachers and principals are forced divert serious attention away from their mission (educating students) and toward satisfying the demands of powerful adults? (And am I the only one pained by the irony of sucking up instructional time in an attempt to make teachers prove they’ve improved instruction?)

Instead of devoting ever more resources to propping up these false accountability systems, why not invest in people? Start with building up schools of education and raising professional standards for teachers (rather than trying to skimp at the front end and then compensate for it with external rewards and punishments later)**. The best school systems have highly trained, highly respected educators who are then given the freedom to use their expertise to create powerful learning experiences (aligned to a set of lean but important standards). The leaders of those school systems are themselves career educators*, who understand the nature of teachers’ work and can offer meaningful support  and guidance. There is absolutely no reason why we couldn’t build that here, but it would require us to stop looking for shortcuts (replacing teachers with cheaper interns, scripting curriculum, etc.) and give educators the respect and trust we deserve.

*I also find it ironic that the “let’s make schools like business” crowd has ignored the work of Jim Collins. His book, Good to Great is especially instructive in this area. He finds that companies that are able to make the transition from goodness to sustained greatness almost always (90% of the time) grow their leadership from within, and they give employees the flexibility to be creative as long as they adhere to the company’s mission. Micromanagers are bad managers.

**ETA: Most who know me have already inferred as much, but I’m not at all suggesting that there are serious deficiencies in teacher training programs to begin with. One huge trend many teachers will note is the extent to which they’re prevented from doing the great things they learned in ed school because of the nonsense they have to do for their school and district leaders. However, there are certainly some programs which are better than others. I feel we need to make sure all programs offer comprehensive training (balancing content and pedagogy, for example) and are thoughtfully planned, rather than trying to marginalize the entire group of them and promoting “shortcut” programs at their expense.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2010 5:59 am

    love this article… general humanizing everthing would help too…medicine, international relations…….jobs…..

    I think there needs to be more right brain people in all world top positions…..too many left-brain thinkers.


  2. October 10, 2010 6:30 am


    Ha! You mentioned “Good to Great.” You and I were having a conversation on Twitter about him last week… How do you feel about theme schools, community schools, or public boarding schools? And what can schools do, if anything, to reprogram young people and get them to walk away from what they know and have experienced in their homes and communities?


  3. David B. Cohen permalink
    October 10, 2010 12:23 pm

    Thanks for the reference to “Good to Great”. Yet another example of the so-called business crowd ignoring good ideas about how to work with people. I think their idea of “business” is about conformity, predictability, and short term profits. Meanwhile, the deeper I dig into actual research and analysis of effective management of people for long term improvement suggests that the ed-deformers are all on the wrong path. They should be taking lessons from W. Edwards Deming, Bob Sutton, Samuel Culbert, Dan Pink, and Jim Collins.


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