Saturday, July 23, 2011

Look Well Into Thyself

Our public schools won't improve if reform initiatives come from on high.

It’s a familiar refrain: “In order to improve our schools, we’re going to implement _______. “

You can fill in the blank any way you’d like. We’re going to implement “new curricular standards.“ We’re going to demand “more accountability” or “tougher graduation standards” to ensure that “No child is left behind. “ Perhaps we’ll start a “reading across the curriculum” initiative, or “reduce class size,” or improve “teacher certification qualifications.”

American education is certainly not lacking in ideas! Nor do I mean to imply that some of these strategies aren’t worth pursuing. But here’s the problem:

Culture eats strategies for breakfast.

If the school culture is not supportive of good teaching and learning, all of the other strategic initiatives are a waste of time.

Several years ago my friend from college signed on to teach at a wealthy private high school in Texas. The school had excellent resources—he even had his own private office, something quite unusual for high school teachers. But it was a horrible experience. “I knew things were amiss,” he told me over the phone some time in October of that year, “when on the first day of school, the students addressed our principal as ‘Bob.’ Then, during my first period class, a young man stood up, stretched loudly, and began walking out the door. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To the bathroom’ the student replied casually. ‘I’ll be back in a few’ and walked out. I went into the hallways to demand he return, but noticed there were no fewer than 20 other students roaming the hallways.“

Suffice it to say, my friend had a miserable year. He had the teaching credentials. He was smart, passionate and committed. The school gave him resources, professional development money, a laptop computer, and classroom materials. But the culture made those things irrelevant almost from the very beginning, and by the end of the year, he said he was nothing more than a glorified babysitter, marking time until the day he could get out of his contract.

One of the endemic problems our schools face is that most reform initiatives come from somewhere other than the school itself: a federal mandate, a new state program, a county Board regulation. Local principals and faculty have too little control over their own fate and resources. I once served as an accreditation consultant for one of the largest public high schools in Alabama, a school of over 2000 students. “How much discretion do you have over your budget?” I asked the principal one afternoon. He laughed ruefully: “Whatever I make in the cafeteria coke machine.” He was being dead serious—in a school with an annual budget of 22 million dollars, he had authority over about $15,000.

The effect of so little control is that it discourages local initiative and the “can-do-it-whatever-it-takes” spirit that is a fundamental ingredient in building a culture that supports learning. A successful school culture is optimistic and inspirational. It inspires teachers to be creative in designing interesting classes and in finding new ways to reach out to students who are falling behind. It builds hope in students and encourages them to take risks and to stretch beyond themselves. It energizes school leaders to find innovative ways to support classroom teaching and to build relationships with families to support and sustain high standards.

There’s no single solution, no magic cure, no silver bullet that is going to make our schools better. But we’re headed in the wrong direction, I believe, when we look to improve our schools by imposing layers upon layers of federal or state mandates upon them. Let’s find ways instead to empower local school leadership to be entrepreneurial in creating the environments necessary to inspire good teaching and learning. And then get out of their way!

Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look there. " (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus)