In My Opinion
Schools Are Failing...Do We Need a Fresh Start?
When you have a rotten tooth, do you drill and fill it or just yank it? That question is at the heart of the controversy surrounding the school improvement grants (SIG) that are a part of Obama's Race to the Top. To receive the SIG, a school must adopt one of four models: a turnaround model that replaces the principal and at least 50% of the staff, a restart model that closes the school and hands it over to a charter, a school closure that sends students into other schools, and the transformation model that replaces the principal and institutes other reforms.
Critics argue that these models, closing schools, removing principals, replacing teachers, create disruption in the areas that are most in need of stability. Since failing schools also have a disproportionate number of non-white students, it is primarily non-white students who are affected by the SIG reform models. As a result, there are over 33 civil rights violation complaints filed about the school turnarounds and closings.
I received a powerful lesson in the importance of continuity during my first teaching job. Some of my students were participating in the METCO program, a "voluntary desegregation (don't say busing) program". They were a mixed group, one had highly educated parents and another had an unstable home with no chair or table for doing homework. Over the course of the year, I grew close with a group of girls who consistently hung around my room after school for extra-help and to just talk. At the end of the year, I was moving to New York. Several of the girls became quite angry that I was leaving. One in particular wouldn't even look at me after the announcement. Once again, adults in her life were leaving her. I fear that is the lesson she will remember above all else she learned that year in the classroom.
Sometimes it is tempting to just tear the whole system down and rebuild fresh. However, children, especially children who have not had stability in their lives, need consistency. Schools should be the center of our communities.
While earning my Master's in Education, I tutored for America Reads in Dorchester. It was an interesting peak into the work of a charter school in one of the poorest areas in Massachusetts. There is a lot that is appealing about charter schools, especially when they are fresh and new, but, like any other school, they need community investment and consistency to work. Teacher quality may be the most important in-school factor in a child's performance. However, socio-economic conditions still trump whatever happens in the schools. What happens at home influences whether or not a child shows up healthy, fed, and ready to learn...or even shows up at all. No teacher, no matter how amazing, can reach a child who is not there.
If the roots of academic inequality are found outside of our schools, then any school reform must also address what is going on in the community. This isn't about shifting the blame around to teachers or parents or administrators. Community involvement and investment are key to reviving failing schools, no matter what model we choose for reform.