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Working Within Constraints to Transform Schools

Dear Deborah,

Instead of responding to your interpretation of my assumptions, which were inaccurate (I don't think the two sides in the debate over school reform have similar ends in mind), let me spell out what I mean by the importance of providing schools with guidance on how to work through the constraints that they face.

Public schools, especially those that serve a disproportionate percentage of low-income students of color, are confronted by a number of constraints that make the job of educating children, well, difficult. These constraints include, but are not limited to:

  • The political—particularly those created by the NCLB related to the inappropriate and excessive reliance on high-stakes assessments to judge students, teachers, and schools. This often leads to a narrowing of the focus of the curriculum, and a narrow focus on achievement without sufficient attention to academic performance and child development;
  • The economic—caused by the shortage of resources (especially in poor communities) that compel schools to do more with less. The financial pressures experienced by low-income families also make it difficult for them to provide the support children need; and
  • The social—which might include everything from concerns about safety, nutrition, health, crime, drugs, and a lack of parental guidance and support.
I describe these as constraints because I reject the "no excuses" position typically offered by the group I called the naïve optimists. They would have us believe that good teaching alone can make it possible for schools to overcome these challenges. I also don't want to treat them as insurmountable obstacles as some of those I described as radical pessimists might be inclined to do. I want to make it clear that while these constraints are formidable, it is still possible to find ways to respond to student needs and create schools that serve children well.

To illustrate what I mean, let me describe the case of Brockton High School in Massachusetts. Brockton has received considerable attention because, despite its many challenges, it is still a high-performing school.

With slightly more than 4,100 students, Brockton High is the largest school in the state. Brockton is a diverse high school and over 75 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Despite a demographic composition that would typically be associated with a struggling school, Brockton High performs better than 90 percent of the schools in the state. In fact, it is one of only three urban high school in the state to have been recognized by the Massachusetts Department of Education as a Level 1 school based on its student performance.

Ten years ago, only a quarter of Brockton's students passed the state exam (MCAS) and one in three dropped out before graduation. In 2002, a group of veteran teachers came together and decided that the only way the school could succeed in meeting the state's rigorous academic standards was if the faculty focused on literacy. Rather than relying on test preparation like many other high schools in the state, teachers at Brockton recognized that with so many of their students entering high school reading at an elementary level they would have to adopt an intensive focus on literacy in all content areas.

With the support of the school's principal, Susan Szachowicz, teachers began training their colleagues in how to teach literacy. They carried out this training before school, after school, during preparation periods, and on weekends. Though some teachers resisted the push to participate in the training for which they were not compensated, gradually they came on board. According to a report published by the Achievement Gap Institute at Harvard titled "How High Schools Become Exemplary," the school is now one of the few in the nation where disparities based on race and class are closing.

In June of 2012, 264 of the graduates, one third of the senior class, qualified for the state's Adams scholarship, guaranteeing four years of funding to any public university in Massachusetts based on students' academic performance. Of these students, one-third were African-American, the other third Latino, and the other third low-income white students. It's also noteworthy that a news story on the school indicates that six people were arrested for fighting at the graduation, a pointed reminder that although the school is making extraordinary progress, there are still significant challenges.

I cite the example of Brockton High School, and I will cite others in the next few weeks, because educators need to learn from schools like these. Such schools are showing us that it is possible to meet the needs of students, including low-income students of color, despite the significant constraints they face. Schools like Brockton devise strategies based on the needs of their students, then organize themselves to meet them. They don't make excuses or blame their students. Instead, they have an internal sense of accountability, a coherent strategy that they stick to, and an enormous degree of buy-in from staff and students.

This month, Principal Szachowicz announced that she would be retiring. She is an extraordinary leader and there will be great sadness about her departure, but no one fears that the school will begin to decline. Sue has worked hard to develop leadership throughout the school, and there is little doubt that the progress will be sustained.

By focusing on schools like this and learning from their success I believe we can move beyond the polarized debate and shed light on what is possible.

What do you think about that?

Pedro

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