The internet has given many folks the opportunity to chime in about education reform (including those that author this blog, teachers from Los Angeles Academy MS). Our school that has been labeled "Program Improvement" -California's label for "failing" schools--- for the last several years. This is due to one simple measure, created by George Bush in his signature piece of legislation known as No Child Left Behind. In NCLB, each school has to have 100% of students scoring Proficient or higher to be deemed a successful school. This includes all English learners, and special education students who are mentally impaired. Many schools, including ours, did not meet our targets, hence the PI label.
But does one single test label measure the worth of a school? I believe not. Having worked at several schools in the Los Angeles Unified District, and having hundreds of colleagues spread out all over the district, state, and nation, I have some thoughts on what hidden factors constitute a good school.
1. Teacher Transiency: For students in poverty, having teachers who know them, want to work with them, and don't feel sorry for them is paramount. They don't thrive when new staff travels through the school for short stints, and takes almost the whole year to learn anything about the population, then poof! they are gone again.
Teachers who stay also show a commitment to the school and community, become experts in teaching this specific population, and tacitly acknowledge that it is a "good school" simply by staying, and not choosing to flee to a better location. Teachers staying is good.
2. Student and Staff Attendance: If you go to work or school, it means you want to be there. It means something is happening in the classrooms that is worth your while. It means teachers are committed to teaching and students to learning,
3. Truancy: When you walk the school campus during class periods, how many kids are "ditching?" Large numbers of truants show the security/management of a school is not working. Its like the broken window theory: if you can't keep the kids in the classroom, you can forget about learning.
4. Student Defiance: When you tell a student to go to class, do they:
- do what you tell them?
- run away?
- not even acknowledge you spoke?
- curse you out and keep walking?
******** You may wonder why there is a focus on student discipline up to now. Remember, this is a blog about teaching in an urban school, where students arrive to us with a multitude of social and economic problems such as poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, foster homes, physical abuse, gang influence, etc. Each school and each community is different. These are challenges we face here, and this is why there is no one solution that will fit all schools and communities.
5. Office Staff: Are they courteous and efficient? Do they treat parents and visitors with respect? Again, this little detail will likely not be noted in the ESEA reauthorization, but it tells lots about a school campus. It says that all workers at the school are expected to be knowledgeable about their duties. It means no one is working at the school due to nepotism or cronyism. It means that office staff are the first people we encounter when visiting schools, and first impressions are pretty accurate.
6. Instruction in the Classroom/Test Scores: This is where I believe that the merit-pay, NCLB fanatics have it wrong. I do not believe test scores tell the whole story about what is happening in the classroom. Quite simply, if teacher quality is based on test scores, or if pay is impacted by tests, then teachers will teach to the test.
I have seen this happen with teachers who put forth minimum effort. If administration says "turn your grades in on time," those teachers are the first to do so. If they say "put the standards on the wall," they have the nicest posters and put them up immediately. Whatever the panacea of the day, slacker teachers will quickly understand that this is on what they will be evaluated, and they comply. They do little more than that, and are always in compliance.
If we make jobs and pay contingent upon test scores, I have no doubt anything not being tested will be eliminated from the curriculum (science, social studies, arts, depth, complexity, novelty) and students will be drilled and killed, and do well on tests. The teachers will keep their jobs, and some may even earn merit pay. But learning has not improved. Two true stories: in one school, a teacher promised his students that if they studied hard and did well on the test in May, he would give them all of June to watch movies in class. They did well, and watched movies all of June. Great teaching? No. Another teacher paid each student $5 for scoring Advanced on the state test. Did her scores improve? Yes. Great teaching? No.
Perhaps a better way would involve something we do in the GATE program here at LAAMS. Once a year teachers conduct GATE observations of their peers. No administrators are involved. The GATE Coordinator and a teacher visit each and every classroom and look for the elements of differentiated instruction. We look for:
- Relevance: Is the lesson a part of the standards? Does the teacher make a connection to real world applications of the lesson? Is it relevant to a gifted learner?
- Instructional strategies: is the lesson taught using strategies tailored to gifted learners, such as curriculum compacting, tiering, novelty, multiple groupings, etc?
- Bloom's Taxonomy: ultimately, at what level of Bloom's did this lesson reach?
- Student Product: did the student have choice? Is the assignment/task rigorous and complex?
- Teacher: Is the teacher using any of the instructional strategies learned at workshops/conferences?
Students in the GATE program also evaluate their teachers and their instruction anonymously. Teachers get a copy of the evaluations at the semester break, and adjust their teaching accordingly. While administration never sees the evaluations, the GATE coordinator does, and teachers are encouraged by her to make adjustments to meet the students' needs.
What is the incentive? Teaching GATE classes. If teachers are not participating in the program in the manner which it was designed, they will not be assigned to teach GATE classes. The teachers in the program trust the authentic evaluation that comes from their peers, and are willing to do what is asked of them.
In an environment where myths are being propagated about teachers and accountability systems, it is clear to me that when you empower teachers to improve themselves, they rise to the occasion. If you throw stupid programs and stupid benchmarks for them to reach, they will act/react accordingly. And nothing will be improved. The fallacy of higher test scores can make some schools seem stellar. But are our students learning to be critical, independent thinkers? Or are they learning to memorize and regurgitate isolated pieces of information, never making connections to how they are relevant to today's world? I think we all know the answer to that.
photo from dcist.com