How do school districts get students to perform better? They reform themselves!
I thought I would use this post to explore school reform. Many of us throw the term around as if everything done under the reform banner is the same. Well, there are degrees and shades of school reform and those degrees and shades matter. For this post, I’m going to place school reform in three camps, and for simplistic sake, call them reform 101, 102, and 103.
The Three Camps
Reform 101 rarely alters our traditional view of the school house. Under reform 101, I believe most grandparents still recognize schools as places they attended.
Generally, reform 101 starts from the premise that the current organization of schools is fine and all we need to do to get students to perform better is to work smarter and harder. Smarter and harder applies to all—students, teachers, and parents. Examples of working smarter and harder include requiring preschool for all poor students, requiring all students to complete Algebra 1 by end the of 8th grade, requiring all students to enroll in and complete a certain number of College Board Advanced Placement courses, requiring all teachers to participate in periodic staff developments, or mandating that all classrooms be staffed with a highly qualified teacher (this one is actually a No Child Left Behind goal/requirement). While many of these things are rather straightforward—even simplistic—there is no implication here that these things are easy to implement or achieve. Getting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom in America is proving to be an extremely difficult challenge. Even wealthy Montgomery County fails to achieve the goal (see www.mdreportcard.org/ for details).
Reform 102 occasionally alters our traditional view of the school house. Under reform 102, some grandparents might still recognize schools while some others might be slightly confused about some of what they see.
Reform 102 efforts underscore the value of working smarter and harder yet these efforts take things a step further by actually altering some traditions. Examples of altering traditions include year-round schools—including the modifications to the traditional bell-schedule and calendar, gender-assigned classrooms—the creation of boys or girls only classrooms, schools without walls—high school students independently complete most classes on a local college campus or dividing a large comprehensive high schools into smaller houses—each house might even have its own principal or curriculum theme.
Reform 103 seriously alters our traditional view of the school house. Under reform 103, many grandparents would not recognize their grandchild’s school at all—assuming there is a brick building.
Many reform 103 efforts are thought to be radical departures from tradition; however, I do not believe that those designing reforms under reform 103 start out telling themselves they must create something radical. I think reformers under reform 103 end up with radical departures from the status quo because their articulated solutions for getting students to perform better require more than what is offered in the traditional school. Examples of reforms under reform 103 include charter boarding schools (take for example The Seed School in Washington DC), virtual or online schools (no or few bricks), or the Harlem Children’s Zone—an effort to transform not just schools but an entire neighborhood (see Paul Tough’s 2008 book Whatever It Takes).
The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and School Reform
For the most part, when it comes to school reform, pretty much everything MCPS does in the name of reform falls under reform 101. We are firmly in the working smarter and harder camp while maintaining the basic traditional view of the school house. In terms of organization, county schools look and feel like they looked and felt 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 years ago. Sure, the kids are different, but the buildings they walk through—with the exception of the technology toys—look and feel the same.
There is nothing wrong with tradition. And if simply working smarter and harder jacks up achievement levels higher, and narrows achievement gaps, than MCPS ought to remain firmly planted in the first camp of school reform. Nonetheless, it seems fair to ask the following question: Can those firmly planted in the first camp actually claim to be school reform leaders? I ask this question because recently someone on an education blog wrote the following, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast is the Churchill of school reform.” (See August 18, 2009 PC blog posting.) Wow, the Winston Churchill of school reform! Wouldn’t this make Weast the elder statesman of school reform?
But seriously, is this possible in a school district that views reform only as working smarter and harder? And can you be “the” elder statesman of reform if you have never viewed a charter school as a potential solution to a specific issue or problem, opened your district to a KIPP school, offered a wide-range of online courses for credit, encouraged a group of high schools to switch to a more flexible bell schedule or created a school from scratch to serve a special population that currently is not well served by the traditional MCPS model? For me, to be “the Churchill of school reform” one has to be able to rule over all visions of school reform—all visions and forms of learning and schooling. And since I know MCPS fails the vision test, I cannot possibly see us making Weast the elder statesman of school reform.
Why Is School Reform Restricted in Montgomery County?
Now, many supporters who find themselves in the first camp of school reform (reform 101) claim that only this type of reform is appropriate for MCPS because the other camps mostly find themselves in failing urban school districts. These are places where desperation is the name of the game. These desperate individuals grab onto anything that floats the boats in a better achievement direction for kids. I think this view of why some may select reforms that fall into the second and third camps is both elitist and ignorant.
- It is elitist because when we take such a view of urban school districts, especially ones with a history of failure, it means we have automatically concluded we are better. Clearly, we are better in terms of resources, facilities, and outcomes; however, we should not assume with certainty that everything we do is automatically better than what happens in Harlem, New York or even Baltimore, Maryland. Why would educated people not believe that others have valuable ideas?
- It is ignorant because by limiting our vision of school reform we automatically eliminate learning and schooling options that might actually be better for certain populations of students. Why would educated people box themselves in to a restrictive concept of reform? Or what a school can be?
I strongly believe that those who find themselves in the third camp of school reform (reform 103), and sometimes in the second camp (reform 102), may in fact be desperate, but I do not think desperation is their only motivation. I believe some of what comes out of reform 103 evolves from a serious child-centered process. What is that?
I actually believe that some reformers in the third camp do not specifically have a school organization or design in mind when they begin the reform process. I believe these reformers actually sit and digest perhaps all that is known about children and learning, and with the resources available to them design a school that 95% of the time ends up looking fairly radical in both concept and design when compared to the typical Montgomery County public school. On the other hand, I doubt that MCPS takes such an open-minded approach when it huddles up to discuss children and learning. It cannot. If this county did take the more open-minded approach, wouldn’t there be at least some variation in what our schools look like?
Yet there is no variation. Not even a single example of a school variation falling into either reform 102 or reform 103. For god sake, we can’t even modify the bell schedules. We want to keep schools open for poor kids year-round, but even on this front, we don’t make the practice mandatory. We went guns a blasting with all-day kindergarten, yet we are struggling to move our traditional Head Start programs to an all-day, year-round format—something others in the nation moved to back in the late 1990’s. If poor kids need all-day kindergarten then they also need all-day Head Start. And those same poor kids and their families probably could use the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Baby College—think Head Start and childhood literacy from the first moments of pregnancy and beyond. We want more students of color to experience the International Baccalaureate (IB) program but we would go into shock if some stood up and suggested that all kids of color be required to sit for the diploma degree (via the full range of IB exams). We could probably fit all of the black kids who now sit annually for exams to receive the full IB diploma degree in a single classroom.
And then there is the Kennedy Cluster Project. The county has gone on record saying it will turn the cluster into a laboratory of social experimentation that will take the cluster’s poor kids of color and turn them into high achievers all headed off to college. For me, “experimentation” implies more than just working harder and smarter. It also makes me think that we are actually going to break some molds and deviate from traditions, and along the way, schools might even end up looking different. So, is this possible? Perhaps, but let me end this posting with offering a few suggestions.
In 2008, I directed a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation research project that evaluated the DC Achievers Program. This program serves high school students in Ward 8 in DC—Anacostia. The program is part of the city’s Double the Numbers initiative—an effort to increase not just the number of poor kids of color who get accepted to college but also graduate with a college degree. The DC Achievers Program is managed by the DC College Success Foundation (see http://www.dccollegesuccessfoundation.org/ and http://www.doublethenumbersdc.org/ for details).
When I read the background documents on the Kennedy Cluster Project, I immediately thought of the DC Achievers Program. Why? Because I actually think the county could learn from what is going on in Anacostia. But it will take more than just working harder. Here is some of what the program is doing in SE DC.
- First, to get more poor kids into college a foundation was established. And I want to say this is a pretty serious foundation with a long-term mission. The foundation is literally pouring millions of new dollars into scholarships and resources that support efforts to get kids in college and to keep them there through graduation. I’m not an expert on how much money is going into the Kennedy Cluster Project but published amounts I have seen are a drop in a very small bucket. There are no millions of new dollars going into the Kennedy Cluster Project.
- Second, lots of additional staffing resources have been allotted to the six Achievers high schools (Anacostia High, Ballou High, Woodson High, Thurgood Marshall Academy Charter High, Friendship Collegiate Charter High, and Maya Angelou Charter High) in Ward 8. For example, beyond the normal guidance/college counseling, students have additional college advisors who work full-time on their behalf. They also work with parents and guardians, spending huge amounts of time helping parents and guardians solve the mysteries of college financial aid, including filling out the FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (as well as direct aid in filing annual income tax forms). For many poor kids of color, the absence of this aid pretty much leaves them abandoned with only a slim chance of getting into a college and staying.
- Third, there is a wide range of mandatory support efforts/formal programs to keep students focused academically not just while in high school but also while in college. It is never easy getting poor kids into the right college nor is it easy to make sure they stay and graduate. Nonetheless, the DC Achievers Program has in place efforts to help kids matriculate—a mandatory summer college bridge program, mentors who check in frequently with students, and efforts to track kids through each semester of undergraduate school.
So, for those in the county willing to really understand what true experimentation is all about, I’m available to anyone as an Anacostia guide. Warning: I will make you visit a few SE DC charter schools, especially Thurgood Marshall Academy—a great example of a small high school (less than 400 students). Can any of us ever imagine such a small MCPS high school?