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Zac Chase: 'What is the measure of greatness of a school?'

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Guest post by Zac Chase.

In last week's introduction to the new 10-part series, A Year at Mission Hill, we're asked an important and timeless question: "How do you create a great school?"

Like most important questions, to answer it we must ask other, deeper questions such as, "What do we mean by great?" "What is the measure of greatness of a school?" and "What greatness has come before us?" Together, our goal will be to use the lens of Mission Hill as a way to collect and translate some of the best thinking and research about how to improve schools and build their capacity for greatness.

Back in 1992, Richard Elmore named a key obstacle to great teaching, and, I would argue, great schools: failing to build the collective capacity of educators beyond the application of "research-based" strategies and tricks. "In current research," Elmore wrote, "learning means the development of understanding, or the ability to perform complex cognitive tasks that require the active management of different types of knowledge around concrete problems." To foster this kind of learning in their students, teachers needed -- and still need -- a different set of tools.

If this is how the students learn, then it must also be true of the teachers.

As Mission Hill Principal Ayla Gavins points out, "Everyone has value."

Great schools work to uncover each person's value, and make it explicit.

Some of the most impactful work I've seen in this area is the work of Norma Gonzalez, Luis Moll, and Cathy Amanti in their exploration of "funds of knowledge." Rather than performing a study in order to publish it in a journal article for a select few, these educators chose a different and more practical tack: they trained teachers in the methods of social sciences, and then deployed teams of them into homes throughout the Mexican community of Tucson, Arizona.

These teams were not there to teach parents or students how they could better students' performance in classrooms. Instead, they were there to discover what knowledge was implicit within these communities. Rather than view the families as impoverished citizens in need of being rescued, these researchers approached the homes they studied as places already rich in value, knowledge, and learning practices. In short, they began from the assumption that when Tucson's Mexican-American children were at home, they were continuously fulfilling Richard Elmore's definition of learning. And then they turned their sights on the classrooms from which the teacher-researchers originated and asked: "How can we integrate these deep funds of knowledge into our own teaching practices?"

Not unlike the conversations we've already seen taking place at Mission Hill, the Arizona teacher-researchers engaged in after-school conversations designed to compare what was going on in their classrooms with what they'd encountered and grown to understand about their students' homes. Simply put, they were aligning their professional practices with the lives and experiences of their students.

These stories remind us that teachers who take the time to understand the "funds of knowledge" that surround their students outside of the classroom will learn to see their students as unique individuals with distinct abilities and needs. And while it's true that this work is insufficient by itself in making and sustaining a great school, it's equally clear that building such an understanding among adults is an essential ingredient toward deepening a school's capacity for greatness.

Zac Chase (zac.chase@gmail.com, @Mrchase) is an education consultant and doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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