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Thursday, November 6, 2014

School Renewal Needs a Safe Crossing, Hand in Hand With Workplace Renewal

The big news this week--besides the elections--has been the Mayor's "School Renewal Plan."  Ever since I started teaching over twenty years ago and had the privilege of knowing teachers who worked in SURRs (Schools Under Registration Review), there have been failing schools.  Student progress and teacher retention have both been extremely low.  And ever since that time, it seems that many, but not all, children from areas of concentrated poverty fare worse on average than their more affluent peers.  Witness the latest Common-Core results.  I'm guessing it's been this way ever since public education became a free and mandated public service.  

Teachers can only be blamed for school failures if you desire a facile, cheap answer to a very complicated problem.  But otherwise don't blame teachers.   I don't believe that poverty is destiny, but I do believe that it presents enormous obstacles to some.  And those who think it can all be overcome by a good dose of grit, probably ought to walk twenty miles in someone else's, so to speak, lack of shoes.  I do believe that the more logical solutions that address wider societal problems would be very costly compared to the cheaper, more illogical solution of holding teachers accountable and then punishing them, especially in a world without due process, as envisioned by some.  

The Mayor's new plan differs markedly from those of former Mayor Bloomberg.  He seeks to fix, rather than ax, failing schools.  Although the Renewal Plan has specific parameters, in general it allows school personnel a greater voice in constructing plans specific to the needs of their schools.  The ninety-four schools designated as failing will receive many supports, including the hub services of medical and dental care, more guidance counselors, mental care, more social services, academic intervention specialists, incorporation of master and model teachers per the U.F.T. contract, after-school and summer-school programs and a school day extended by one hour of additional tutoring.  The plans sets goals, including meeting certain milestones of academic improvement, increased attendance and teacher retention rates. 

De Blasio's plan reminds me somewhat of Shanker's MES Schools except it falls short on reducing class size.  Leonie Haimson who tirelessly advocates for parents' number one item on their educational wish list at Class Size Matters, was quick to point out the flaw, as one might expect.  

The plan looks for more parental involvement.  I would agree that community services as well as community involvement are critical to success.  I would also agree that there is no single formula for success, but it must vary from school to school, indeed, from child to child.  Students should be given a voice.  If they don't buy into the system, it is doomed from its inception.  If students have only sporadic attendance or switch schools frequently as their parents or guardians get evicted or search for more affordable housing, "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men, aft gang agley." This would be a shame.

So, will the plan work?  I am sure the chances for success are less than those for a Success Academy.  After all, as public schools we educate all children.  We do not "fire" those students who might disturb our class or drag down our stats.  I feel sure the Renewal Plan's heart is in the right place.  The problems in failing schools reflect more the hardships outside of schools than any problem that began strictly within a school building.  If class sizes were capped at fifteen or twenty, I feel sure the chances for success would increase.  In over-sized classes of students with over-sized social and emotional as well as academic needs, teacher burnout promises to remain a burning issue, especially given the current climate of teacher-bashing educational reform.  

In the end, plans to reform schools must begin with the notion that most problems find their roots outside the school.  Then, we must decide how much we are willing to sacrifice as a society to wage another war on poverty and the pernicious problems that it invites.  We must provide willing and able workers with the dignity to earn a respectable wage in socially acceptable ways to support their families.  What we really need, if you ask me, is to ask the Waltons of the world to focus a little less on ed. reform and a little more on reforming their workplace.  If conditions outside the schools improve, I feel sure schools will more readily renew themselves at a far faster rate.  Wouldn't it be nice if the Waltons of the world who seem so concerned with school reform might look inwards and write their own Workplace Renewal Plan?

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