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Trust: The Missing Ingredient in School Reform

At the root of the current reform drive from Rhode Island to Florida to Los Angeles is an authoritarianism disguised as accountability. "Reform Or Else" could be the motto of the day. Unfortunately coercion destroys trust, and this is perhaps the single most important element in a successful school.

The essence of reform is getting people to do things differently. What does that look like in a struggling school? A successful strategy might include:

  1. Investigation of all the factors affecting student performance

  2. A shared understanding that neither parents nor teachers are to "blame" for the current situation, and that all of us need to work together to find solutions.

  3. Development of clear educational goals, and authentic assessments that will reveal progress towards those goals.

  4. Collaboration between teachers and parents to develop strategies to address as many factors affecting progress as possible, especially ones that the school and parent community can implement.

  5. Teacher sharing of instructional practices found to be effective with our students

  6. Willingness to open our classrooms to one another, to share what is working, and be open to new ideas to improve on things not working so well.

  7. A collaborative evaluation process, where the process is used as a chance to reflect on our practice and set goals, and follow through with professional growth aligned to these goals.

Each and every one of these steps is built on the bedrock of TRUST. In order to improve, we need to allow our weaknesses to be revealed. We need to know that we are all -teachers, parents and administrators -- in this together. We need to know we are all striving to serve our students as best we can, and that we will all help one another to meet the great challenges we face.

Somehow many of our leaders in Washington, Florida and California - (and perhaps in your state as well) have decided that teachers can NOT be trusted. Regardless of how this decision was reached, it is having a calamitous effect on the efforts to improve our schools. What happens when you decide that teachers will only do their jobs if they are forced to?

  • You use the threat of firings to "motivate" people to embrace reform strategies that have been devised by district or state leaders.

  • You base a large portion of teacher salary and a teacher's evaluation on their students' test scores to "incentivize" them to do their jobs.

  • You adopt more and more prescriptive curricula and canned instructional programs so you can ensure that your incapacitated staff will know what to do.

  • You devise more and more intrusive testing systems to monitor and control instruction and learning and allow you to identify and punish laggards.

And what effect are these steps going to have on the list of potentially fruitful strategies offered above?

  1. Investigation of factors affecting student performance is abandoned because it is concluded that the teacher is the only factor that matters.

  2. We do not need to spend time figuring out goals because they are determined entirely by the state. Assessment of success or failure is limited to the state test. No other performance counts.

  3. Collaboration with parents is sabotaged by mutual indictment. Teachers feel they are being unfairly blamed, and it is actually the parents' fault, and parents feel let down by the teachers.

  4. Instructional strategies and scripted curricula are imposed by the district and implemented without enthusiasm or investment by discouraged and disempowered teachers.

  5. Teachers will not share effective practices because we get these from outside experts. If we had any effective practices we wouldn't be in this mess, would we? Also, if my pay and evaluation depend on my scores, I want mine to be the best in the building. Why should I share that curriculum I wrote over the summer for free?

  6. Collaborative practices are undermined, and isolation is increased, which has the effect of insulating the teachers most in need of improvement from the pressure and support of their colleagues.

  7. The evaluation process is driven by test scores and adherence to the scripts and strategies imposed from on high. Reflection is not called for - just examination of test data.

This is a great way to destroy, not rescue, a struggling school.

We have heard occasional nods to authentic assessment from Secretary Duncan and President Obama. And Secretary Duncan has praised those who work in challenging schools for their dedication. But they both applauded the firing of the entire staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, and the blueprint for reauthorization of NCLB makes it clear that there will be a perpetual list of struggling schools subject to similar coercive reform measures.

When I have raised objections to reconstitution in the past, I have heard the rejoinder: "But something must be done to fix these chronically low-performing schools, mustn't it?" YES. But to succeed, you must build from a foundation of trust and respect for the people that teach in these schools. Coercion destroys trust. Every school is at heart a community. Some are dysfunctional communities. Some have had poor leadership. Some have not developed their capacity to respond to the challenges they face. But we must begin by building on and expanding the trust and strength that binds a school together, because that is going to be the foundation for the changes we need.

What do you think? Can change be achieved through coercion? Is trust needed in order to improve a school?

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