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Teaching in Paradise

Are you as tired of hearing about Our Failing Schools as I am?

Or--excuse me--our failing Traditional Public Schools. Although the evidence around charter schools ranges from one-off boutique schools with select populations to miserable for-profit chains that scrape the bottom of the barrel on multiple measures, the word "charter" seems to ignite a little flame of enchantment in media stories.

Charters. Yes. Let's give them a chance to "work"--to (take your pick): institute grit / hire enthusiastic young non-unionized teachers / establish a rigorous core curriculum / engage parents / do something--anything, really--that traditional schools can't. Because charter.

I was chatting with a young mother last week, about her four-year old who has just started pre-school in a local (traditional public) elementary. Her older son attends a charter school, but they don't have a pre-school program. I asked how the younger boy likes pre-school, and she exclaimed: I am so fed up with public schools! I can't wait until [Son #2] can go to [Charter]! The story that emerged had to do with pick-up and drop-off routines, and incorrect directions on the school website--an anxious child and a frustrated mom.   

What surprised me was how quickly "public schools" were the target, rather than a website that hadn't been updated or lack of communication. How did we get to the point that public education is to blame for a minor logistical mix-up that has probably already been forgotten? Did he like his teacher, I asked. Oh yes. His teacher was great. He brought home a pumpkin painting for the fridge. He couldn't wait to go back. But public education stinks.

As Diane Ravitch is fond of pointing out, public education in America has built many of our nation's strengths and advantages.  There are thousands of thriving, innovative public school districts in the United States, often working with unlimited dedication but limited resources. I spent some time this summer in one of them--Montgomery County, Maryland--working with teachers who will be sharing their expertise with colleagues pursuing National Board Certification.

It struck me that Montgomery County had all the elements that "reformers" talk about in those stories about How School Could Be. They have pioneering leadership. They have diversity. They have outstanding teachers and rich professional learning and collaboration. They have pretty much written the book on teacher evaluation and peer support, and a number of other current, contentious issues.

Here's something the "reformers" don't talk about that matters, a lot: they work hand-in-glove with their teachers union, the MCEA. All that great coaching and outside-the-box thinking? It came about because the teachers' association trusts the administration--and vice versa--and believes that trust can be leveraged to do (here comes a cliché) good things for kids, as well as career-building (as opposed to one-shot "training") for teachers.

Yup, I know. Montgomery County isn't perfect. No traditional school district or division is. No leader is, no union is, no superintendent is. But lately, the conversation hasn't been around "look at what these folks are doing (and willing to share)".  It's been good vs. bad. Blaming and categorizing.

Nobody teaches in paradise.  But here's what the good folks in Montgomery County were talking about last month--in their own district and 15 others around the country. Good conversations to have. Carry on. 

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