Are conflict and confrontation necessary ingredients in a school turnaround? Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher files a provocative column about a Maryland school that is succeeding without the kind of bare knuckle brawls that are drawing national media attention to Michelle Rhee and the nearby Washington, DC school system.
Fisher goes to Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring where scores were so low eight years ago that a state takeover loomed. Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast and Principal Jody Leleck negotiated with the teachers union to add extra hours to the work week for extra pay. “Teachers would offer no more excuses about poor kids from dysfunctional families; expectations would soar. About a third of the faculty left; Leleck hired 27 veteran teachers that first summer” he reports.
Rhee’s faceoff with the Washington Teachers’ Union creates a dynamic different from the cooperation between Weast and Montgomery County Education Association President Bonnie Cullison. She said she hears Rhee telling teachers, ” ‘You’re not doing the job,’ as opposed to ‘Let’s work together.’ You cannot make it happen in a district where you set up conflict”…Weast won’t criticize his D.C. counterpart, but he will say that narrowing the achievement gap is about expecting all children to work hard and love learning. “You can do it anyplace if you treat people like you want to be treated,” he says.
Today, 81 percent meet reading proficiency standards this year, up from 47 percent in 2003. “Broad Acres did this without Rhee’s reform tactics,” Fisher points out. ”No young recruits from Teach for America, no cash for students who come to class, no linkage of teacher pay to test scores.” And what’s happening inside the classrooms?
Too often, schools desperate to boost test scores become grim factories in which children are force-fed rote skills. But at Broad Acres, teachers coach each other to keep kids engaged in rich material for its own sake. In Andrea Sutton’s fifth-grade class, 16 kids sit on the floor, jumping up to explain to one another the roots of the American colonists’ grievances with the British. The teacher’s voice never rises above a stage whisper as she plies the class with questions that would fit nicely in a high school course. With all the pressure from No Child Left Behind, it’s so easy to cut out history and science,” Bayewitz says. “But these kids are going to need those complex skills in high school and college. And these kids are going to college.”
Claus von Zastrow at Public School Insights observes that Fisher’s piece reminds us “that school improvement does not necessarily require a death-match between high-profile ‘reformers’ and the education ‘establishment.’” Fisher is promising a follow-up column Sunday on ”a D.C. school that matches Broad Acre’s population, put presumably not its methods. Stay tuned.