Schools and school systems are arguably amongst the most complex social institutions we have, and this is why they are so hard to change. They involve the hopes, school histories, attitudes toward childhood, psychology, and learning assets and challenges of an enormous array of stakeholders. These stakeholders include the students themselves, their families, everyone who works in the schools, as well as the school boards who make policies for them and the taxpayers who fund them.
When we talk about successfully improving schools we are talking about relying on leaders who are determined to make things better for students despite the complexity of moving so cumbersome a system forward. This work can only be accomplished by people who recognize the challenges inherent to creating real change and who know how to earn the trust of the stakeholders. Districts where parents, teachers, staff, administrators, students, taxpayers all feel respected are the districts that thrive.
Our national school system taken as a whole is in a lot of trouble. We lag behind the rest of the developed world in many key arenas, among them math, science, languages, and literacy. Our students drop out of college at alarming rates. This is true of graduates of inner-city schools and it is true of many of our schools here in Maine. We are accustomed to the media in this country discussing the problems of the nation’s inner-city schools. We tend to think our local schools are much better than those in big city ghettoes, and on many measures they are. However when it comes to graduating students ready to successfully navigate college and eventually the professional world, a large percentage of our students here in Maine experience significant trouble.
Some countries that have successfully undertaken major education reform movements in recent decades include Finland, Singapore, Brazil, Germany, and Canada. One aspect of reform these countries share is a move away from a bureaucratic top-down approach to the management of schools. According to the OECD 2011 report Lessons from Pisa for the United States, “…these countries concluded that top-down initiatives were insufficient to achieve deep and lasting changes in practice … because teachers and schools did not buy in to the reform strategy.”
In many districts in our country, as well as our state, one constituency frequently left out of the dialogue of school improvement is teachers. Mandates and decisions are regularly handed down from administrators to teachers about important issues like grading approaches and technology usage with the assumption that teachers will embrace the mandates. In fact few teachers respond well to this way of doing business. Those who are dedicated professionals have hours and hours of studying children under their belt. They are familiar with the developing brain, classroom management, and their subject matter. They know they have a lot to offer to the discussion about how to teach children. When we leave teachers out of the conversation we doom efforts for reform. We need to reframe the way school leaders and teachers interact. The effort for reform needs to be a joint effort. Teachers and leaders should be learning and talking together about how to improve our schools.
We live in exciting times for those interested in education. Research in many fields seems to be daily shedding light on how we can work better with our children. Studies in biology, psychology, the brain – all promise help for the educator. In fact there is so much going on that the more of us there are that are reading and talking about the research the more likely it is that we will stay on top of new developments. Perhaps more of the stakeholders in schools should be reading this research together – not in separate pods but in shared groups – so that we develop a common vocabulary for talking about improvement.
The Obama administration promises a major overhaul of our schools, with an insistence on equity of opportunity for all students and a better quality of teachers and principals. Other countries have revolutionized their systems after making those changes on a national level. In fact what unites the most successful school systems in the world is a commitment that all schools in their countries must be equitable – no child’s education should be compromised because of the town he lives in or the socio-economic status of her family. The United States ranks amongst the most stratified nations in the developed world in relation to education, and is one of the least successful. A recent article by Susan McMillan in the Kennebec Journal reporting on nationwide testing results for vocabulary states: “…there were large achievement gaps across income levels and racial and ethnic groups.” On December 11th The New York Times reported on testing results from the International Study Center at Boston College: “In the United States, only 7 percent of students reached the advanced level in eighth-grade math, while 48 percent of eighth graders in Singapore and 47 percent of eighth graders in South Korea reached the advanced level.” We need to change these outcomes if we are to remain a world player.
While we wait to see how national reforms play out in Maine, let’s start with a reform we can make locally. Let’s ask our local school districts to rethink their approach to decision-making in the schools. Let’s insist on a commitment that in the future all constituencies, including teachers, will be involved in decision-making in sustained, meaningful ways. This sort of decision-making requires relationships that are defined by frequent opportunities for conversation and listening. The benefit of honest discourse was apparent at RSU 13’s community forum on December 12. The evening was peppered by remarks from high school students. These students spoke articulately about things they believe need to be changed in the schools. They want more rigor and more opportunities to explore fields of learning. Community members and educators all heard what the students said. We need this kind of dialogue between all players in the schools to be the norm in our school districts. Honest dialogue is one of the changes most likely to truly improve our schools and it is one we can start implementing inexpensively, and right away.
(These thoughts first appeared in the Courier-Gazette on 12/20/12)