Wednesday, June 4, 2008
When good schools fail
My students (undergraduate and graduate teacher education students) have spent the last three days visiting several different schools in a nearby urban community. We were guests of these schools as part of the Urban Educators' Institute, an initiative to introduce university students to the schools, teachers, students, and communities that make urban education so amazing and challenging. The theme of this year's institute was What is right about urban education? The short ending to a long story is the schools, the teachers, the students, and the administrators are right with urban education.
The schools were different in many ways. Some had strong administrators who were responsible for creating a professional learning community. In other schools, the culture of the schools themselves guided the school environment, so that the administrators could let things flow on their own. Some of the schools were older than 75 years. Others were built as recently this year. All of these schools housed amazing programs that provided rich, rigorous, and wonderful learning experiences for their students. The evidence was every where, on the streets outside the buildings where we watched parents talking with teachers as the dropped off or picked up their children, in the halls which we decorated with students' projects, in the classrooms where we got to see students and teachers learning together, and most importantly, we heard about it from the students themselves. They told us what they were learning, why it was important, and there were even some tears as they related to the audience the importance of the teachers and administrators who challenged and nurtured them.
The teachers exhibited everything that we (at the university which employs me) hope to instill in our teacher education students; they all have the content knowledge, the pedagogical content knowledge, the skills, and the dispositions of successful teachers. And the students were amazing. And yet, these young men and women that we met were also members of the larger urban community that the schools served. And when we had the chance to talk to them, we were able to take away new ways to engage our own students.
Which brings me to a poignant issue about these schools and the expectations that have been placed on them by the state and the federal government. If I had children (or ever decide that I am bored of the child-free environment in which I live), these are the types of schools where I would want to send them. The programs are strong. The teachers are amazing. The administrators are dedicated. And many of them are identified as schools in need of improvement.
It's the new rhetoric they use today. Before they were called failing schools. Now they simply need to improve. Of course the irony of this is that these schools are outstanding centers for learning. And yet, when most people hear they did not make AYP (adequate yearly progress), they assume these schools must be homes to lazy students, teachers who have checked out, and incompetent administrators. The stark reality is that AYP fails to consider what is right with schools. It focuses on what is wrong. And it's not just urban schools who are in trouble.