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We Have A Failed School System, Not Failed Schools

Can Principals Learn to Support Teachers and Create Professional Learning Communities? Or, Will the Gorgons Devour Us?

[Editor’s note: Peter Goodman blogs at Ed in the Apple where this post originally appeared.]

The basketball coach looked distraught.

“What’s the matter?”

“Report cards just came out, one of my best players is ineligible.” *

“What are you going to do?”

“Guess I’m going to have to coach better.”

If a school is moving toward closing, becoming “ineligible,” have you ever heard a chancellor, a network leader, a principal or a teacher say, “Guess I’m going to have to coach (i.e., lead, support, teach) better”?

We have a failed system, not failed schools.

Schools have been identified as “failing” schools since the late 80s, when the State Education Department (SED) began to identify schools as Schools Under Registration Review (SURR), schools in danger of being closed. A state team spent three days in the school observing all classes, interviewing the entire school community, reviewing data, formal and informal records and on the fourth day reported their findings to the entire staff. A few months later a detailed report was issued following an SED rubric with specific findings and recommendations. At the end of the SURR cycle the SED issued a summary of all the SURR reports, leading the list of the reasons for school failure was lack of leadership, at the school and district levels.

In the second decade of the 21st century very little has changed, (“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”). We close “failing” schools and open small schools in the same building and watch them ever so slowly turn themselves into failing schools. The Center for New York City Affairs June 2009 report points to the pros and cons of the large school closings:

  • Attendance and graduation rates are higher at new small schools than at the large schools they replaced. Principals and students report the new schools are safer. Yet many small schools remain fragile, with attendance and graduation rates declining. (See “Handle with Care“)
  • As the city closed the lowest-performing large schools to make way for small schools, thousands of students, including many new immigrants and children with special education needs, were diverted to the remaining large schools. Many of those schools suffered overcrowding and declining attendance and graduation rates. Some were subsequently closed. (See “A Case of Collateral Damage“)
  • Twenty-six of 34 large high schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx saw their enrollments jump significantly as other high schools were closed. Of these, 19 saw their attendance decline and 15 saw their graduation rates decline between the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2007. Fourteen saw both attendance and graduation rates decline.
  • Thousands of students have been assigned to schools they did not choose or that are not appropriate for their educational needs. Students are assigned to schools up to 90 minutes from home, each way, by bus or subway. The more extensive the system of school choice, the more it sorts children into those who can navigate the admissions process and those who cannot.

In spite of the lessons learned in the Chancellor’s District (see evaluations here and here) struggling and new schools, in fact, all schools, are “on their own.” They voluntarily choose networks and the decisions are solely those of the principal. Bad decisions, lack of principal experience, poor relationships with the staff, so be it, only the datum determines the success/failure of the school. Intervention is not an alternative. The Chancellor’s District was successful due to a complex web of specific supports and levels of accountability.

This year State Ed has targeted 25 schools for possible closing, many long established and some created under Bloomberg auspices. Some have had frequent changes in school leadership, others serve extremely poor families, have large numbers of students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Many fall in the bottom few percentiles of schools city-wide, four received a “B” on their Progress Report. The State and the DOE use different metrics to measure school success/failure.

The primary reason for school failure, evidenced by years of State Education SURR summary reports is the absence of effective leadership. The DOE decision to recruit school leaders with no prior supervisory experience and limited teaching experience is disastrous. Too frequently school principals mechanically observe the “teaching” side of the process, however, have no understanding that education is the “teaching-learning” process. Principals who were not highly effective teachers do not understand that effective teaching is not formulaic. Lessons may be technically “correct,” but boring.

The DOE leaves the evaluation/assessment of the “teaching” portion of the equation to the principal and measures the “learning” portion through the summative assessment, i.e., the State tests.

Master teachers engage students and measure “learning” in small increments, a number of times in each lesson, commonly referred to as formative assessment .

Students report, “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” and, “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class.”

Mike Schmoker has written extensively about the inherent failure of top-down, imposed “reform,” and points to the essential importance of bottom-up, collaborative teaching:

… the most productive thinking is continuous and simultaneous with action — that is, with teaching — as practitioners collaboratively implement, assess, and adjust instruction as it happens.

Effective teachers must see themselves not as passive, dependent implementers of someone else’s script but as active members of research teams — as “scientists who continuously develop their intellectual and investigative effectiveness.”

Historically, reform has had only the most negligible impact on “the central work of the school: instruction.” To remedy this situation, we must replace complex, long-term plans with simpler plans that focus on actual teaching lessons and units created in true “learning communities” that promote team-based, short-term thought and action.

How many schools support “professional learning communities”? How many principals structure schools to create space for teachers to collaborate? How many principals are master teachers, of teachers?

As the DOE moves toward adopting an iteration of Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Learning we must ask: Do principals have the requisite skills to implement the Danielson Frameworks?

Cathie Black has inherited a failed school system burdened with layers of “reforms” that impede change. No matter the depth of the data, the complexity of the checklist, the number of Stanford MBAs, change comes from clusters of teachers who share/adjust their practice, on a daily basis, reflecting the actual kids in front of them in the classroom.

Changing seniority rules, making it easier to deny tenure and fire teachers, to constantly engage the union in combat weakens and disempowers the employer and chases away the most dedicated and competent employees.

Chancellor-nominee Black has an opportunity to refocus, if she chooses simply to pursue the Klein course the sixteen hundred schools and million plus youngsters will fall prey to Stheno and Euryale, the gorgons of mythology.

* (The 4+1 Rule: A student must pass four credit bearing subjects (not four credits) and physical education, if taken, in the most recent final marking period (January or June). An eligible student-athlete must pass four credit bearing subjects and physical education the marking period closest to December 1st or April 15th to continue his/her eligibility … Entering freshmen (first year in grade 9) are academically eligible until the 2nd report card is issued.)



  • 1 mel hauser
    · Dec 17, 2010 at 10:22 am

    No one is willing to admit the truth–bigotry is the most responsible party in school “failure.” The kids have “bad” parents because too many live in dangerous neighborhoods, with drug addicted family members and peers, go to dilapidated schools, see no reason to delay satisfaction. If neighborhoods and schools were integrated, this would all change–Forest Hills doesn’t have better teachers, it has a better environment.

  • 2 Michael Dunn
    · Dec 19, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Thank you for posting this!

    It is true that we have a failing system, not failing schools.

    It is also true that we have a failure of leadership, not only in terms of a bunch of novices and dilettantes thinking they can run districts, but also in terms of school officials and politicians refusing to accept responsibility for their failures and passing the blame onto teachers, parents and students.

    Most importantly we have a failed socioeconomic system that allows thousands of children to go hungry and suffer material privation while a tiny minority gets richer and richer. Poverty is the single greatest cause of low achievement and it is not only being ignored by ed reformers, but exacerbated by politics.

  • 3 Monex
    · Dec 27, 2010 at 11:03 am

    My purpose is to put a human face on a process that discounts the hard work of teachers whose schools did not perform well on FCAT. Jeb Bushs grading system I take great offense at his statements about high-performing schools having committed teachers. the commitment of the teachers in those other schools to suggest that my colleagues and I are less so is a slap in the face and lacking in common sense..