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The Good School

What is a good school? How would a parent know if a school was good—i.e., functional, challenging, caring, and doing what schools are supposed to do?

At the MI State Board of Education meeting last week, candidate for Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley served as inadvertent commercial for the truism—the research-supported truism—that parents believe their child's school is a good one, but public education is a hot mess.

The State Board invited each gubernatorial candidate to a one-hour conversation on education issues. Republican contender Rick Snyder sent his running mate Calley, who praised the public schools his children attend as "outstanding." He also spoke glowingly about his own education in public schools and universities in Michigan. Calley's son is in first grade and already a reader; his daughter requires special education services—and he was careful to note that he and his wife were impressed and appreciative of the expertise and professional attention available to them in their local district.

When the questioning turned to policy issues, Calley (who has spent four years in the state legislature) expressed support for the Board's recent push to adopt big changes to make Michigan Race to the Top-friendly—policies essential, he noted, when "the system was broken." Heads snapped up around the Board table. Was this the man who'd just praised his local school district for its meticulous concern for his own children?

Evidently, some schools are just fine. We need heavy-duty policy shifts to whip those broken schools into shape, however. The fact that state policy impacts all students and systems—the thriving and the dysfunctional—went unacknowledged.

In a piece published in the Washington Post last week, I made essentially the same point. The column drew lots of agreement--but also a smattering of commentary proclaiming that I was setting the "lowest possible bar" by suggesting that public education in America was not dead in the water.

So—I ask again: What happens in a good school? What does resourceful, effective instruction look like? How does well-chosen curriculum intersect with meaningful learning? How do good teachers cope with the daily skirmishes in the classroom? Is there engagement? Is there joy?

"Waiting for Superman" portrays learning as cracking open the head and pouring in content—and a "good school" is a kind of nirvana where children board away from their dangerous neighborhoods or escape crumbling playgrounds and filthy classrooms. "The Providence Effect" (a documentary released in 2009, about a renowned Catholic school that opened a charter clone, in Chicago) was also curiously short on detail about classroom practice:

There is curiously little about instruction in the film; we do see a few examples of very traditional classroom teaching. There is a clip of first-graders in a race-to-the-board competitive spelling game (the teacher assigning points to teams, a la Professor Dumbledore).

There is a HS math lesson where the teacher puts an equation on the board and announces "No calculators!" (which drew a spatter of applause from the documentary audience). An elementary teacher models a familiar and effective pedagogical questioning strategy but then suggests, in commentary after the lesson, that nobody in his circle believes that second graders can do work at this level.

How will we know if our schools are good, unless we can describe what makes a school a rich and productive place for children to be? Here's a film clip that helps illuminate the idea of the good school.

It's a review and trailer for August to June, a lovingly filmed chronicle created by California public school teacher Amy Valens and her husband, Tom. The montage of images and sounds is familiar to all practitioners: children planting, drawing, square dancing, building, singing, squabbling and making up. There are math lessons, writing critiques and physics, too. There are children struggling with decoding and children giving polished readings of their own creative work.

There are no straight rows, plaid jumpers, sitting up straight, nodding or tracking the teacher visually.

What does a good school look like?

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