When the question was posed, "What can we do to improve the schools?" I began to recall research studies, political agendas,and examples of schools that have experienced significant improvements. Laura Pappano’s "In School Turnarounds, the Human Element is Crucial" (online 10/20/10) comments, that in reform efforts, "It is people who bring the strategies to life." She continues, in 2001 a new principal, Anthony Smith, of an Ohio high school given the lowest rating of "academic emergency" was able to turn the school around so that it earned the highest rating, "excellent."
How you may wonder did he do it? First he went "door to door in the neighborhood" asking for support. He met with teachers and asked what worked and what was ineffective. Then he challenged them by saying if they were not "ready" to help the students they should not return to school after lunch. But all of the teachers returned. Smith did not fire or remove any staff members. He gained the support of Bell’s chief executive who promised every student with a "3.3 grade point average" a cell phone and a laptop.
Contrast this example to actions in this area. An article by Toav Gonen (September 28, 2010, New York Post) recounted Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s nationally televised attack on teachers’ classroom performance and how he vowed to end tenure. Bloomberg felt teachers must be rated "effective" or "highly effective" to keep their jobs. New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, in another NY Post article by Gonen (l0/26/10) wanted to release to parents "internal ratings for 12,000 teachers" characterizing these ratings, which were based upon state test scores, as the "fairest system wide way" to assess the teachers’ impact on what students achieve. In reply to this, the teachers’ union President, Michael Mulgrew, criticized the ratings, as well as the state tests on which the ratings had been based, because they had been called "Invalid."
In Westchester we can only wonder how our schools and teachers will be evaluated in the future. If the nearby New York City school system succeeds in giving ratings of their teachers to parents, will that create a demand for that practice here? In New Rochelle it was no surprise to hear Bill Mullen on WVOX state that for years the least experienced teachers were sent to south side schools. He added I "think there may be an element of seniority involved…it is much more pleasant to teach a student whose parents are 100% involved, who expect their little one will follow them to college and career; than it is to teach children who don’t do their homework, don’t eat well, don’t understand comportment, and probably spent too much time on computer games and TV shows."
This raises many questions about teacher effectiveness. Are all teachers equipped to teach all students (except those with special needs)? If this is so, how can staffing be equitably accomplished? There is a question of supply and demand which is inconsistent from year to year. However, if a school has a difficult student body, more teacher turnover usually occurs.
A report on the students from the middle school in the south end of New Rochelle showed they had lower high school graduation rates than students from the middle school in the north end of the city. At a Board of Education meeting a report listed the many programs this lower achieving south end middle school had to help students. Yet there was no mention of how the administration screened students for these programs or how they programs were evaluated. Contrast this to the Ohio school where the principal without threats got his teachers to sign on to improving the school.
Common sense (and studies) tell us that when teachers, students or any other group are placed under unfair amounts of stress, their performance suffers. Community support was an integral part of the Ohio school’s turn-around. George Imburgia had another perspective. He felt schools should restore discipline if they want to improve education. Corporal punishment should not be included and parent involvement is essential. He added, to discipline children, "you should deprive them of something they like."
Let’s look at the education of youngsters in a broad context and be willing to listen to teachers, parents, administrators and community members, and then take the broad steps necessary to improve education.