17 February 2008

Turning It Around

What are the options for influencing positive change in failing schools? If you're Chicago, the options include a complete housecleaning: pink slip the principal and staff, hire new people, as well as "other key elements [such as] added time for teachers to plan and collaborate, longer school days or school years, clustering turnaround schools so they can learn from one another, local authority over budget and curricula, and support for teachers and administrators from outside the school, such as the district or an outside group." These schools are referred to as Turnaround Schools. Their appearance is recent---and results uncertain.

As you might imagine, this kind of drastic change for a school is unpopular with the teachers' union and is also a bit nervewracking for parents. Perhaps this amount of change is just too radical in nature. As for me, the outsider looking in, I like the idea. Why? It takes a long time to reculture a school---years and years. In the meantime, any number of children continue to be poorly served. A new staff with a new vision, training, and expectations is an opportunity to take a building in a new direction in a hurry.

But what about the neighbourhood and families? They're not going to change. High poverty areas will not suddenly become middle-class. Students with significant issues on the home front are still going to have those issues. My personal response to that is that as educators, we have to do our best with the aspects of a child's life over which we do have influence and control. We might not be able to keep mom from bringing a new man home every evening...or dad from spending money on booze and cigarettes as opposed to new shoes for the child; but, for 8 - 10 hours a day, we can provide a safe and caring learning environment for a child. It has to be the best we can make it. The same school staff doing the same things is not going to make an impact.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who will be watching Chicago's experiment progress. How many other cities are in need of significant solutions to school problems? While we may only see high profile (read: urban) examples of this, I do wonder if this type of approach will be considered in smaller towns. Will a teacher who has turned his/her nose up at the standards in favour of sticking with the same old, same old finally realize that unemployment is around the corner? Will unions stop protecting the poorest performing teachers in order for schools to move toward building successful staffs before a district sends them all packing? Or will "That can't happen here" prevail? Chicago's efforts may well determine many of these answers for the rest of us.

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