Tag Archives: “traditional” public schools

Schools Should Collaborate, Not Compete

In my time teaching, I’ve found that observing colleagues in their classrooms is one of the best ways to improve my own practice.  Teachers have different styles,  sure. But there are certain methods that simply work better than others. Implementing some of those best practices–how to best distribute materials and organize group work, for instance–has absolutely made me into a better teacher. To some extent, the subject, grade level, or curriculum is irrelevant. If it works, it’s worth trying out.

Yet for some reason we are reluctant to apply that logic to improving schools as a whole. Instead of trying to identify and replicate what makes schools great, we get bogged down in competition and useless, arbitrary labeling. Are charter schools better than traditional public schools? Are charter schools “public schools” or not? These questions are akin to me observing a number of great teachers and only taking away that, on average, classrooms that use Staples-brand pencils perform about the same as those that use OfficeMax. A classroom is a classroom, a school is a school. If it is effective, who cares what we call it?

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report that supports that kind of sentiment. Entitled “Searching for Excellence,” the report examines the performance of charter schools in five U.S. cities—Albany, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and Indianapolis. Though much of the report is devoted to comparing charters with regular district schools—an exercise that I consider to be useless—it also suggests a path to improving charters overall: closing or replacing low-performing schools and expanding or replicating high-performing ones. It’s an incredibly simple yet logical step, echoing the well-publicized NACSA “One Million Lives” campaign (which I have previously discussed).

But why can’t we push that idea even further? Traditional public schools, charters, and parochial schools undoubtedly have a lot to learn from each other. Especially in struggling districts, kids deserve a culture of collaboration, not competition, between all schools.  Our initial reaction to a successful school should be to celebrate it, not debunk it; educators should be excited to  pick up tips and strategies that have proven to be successful. If a real culture of collaboration existed, the recent finding that KIPP schools boost relative academic performance would have led to teachers and principals lining up out the door to see KIPP in action. Yet it seems to me that far more energy has been spent attempting to criticize KIPP’s practice and undermine the study’s findings. That competitive, negative attitude is nothing but a distraction.

Any teacher knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to teach; any principal knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to run a school. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from each other. With so many great educators in districts across the country, there is  a wealth of knowledge and experience that we could be sharing. It’s just a matter of swallowing our pride and doing it.

The Misplaced Priority of “Save Our Schools”

One of the loudest voices in the current education reform debate–particularly on the Internet and social media– is the group Save Our Schools. Originally founded “to speak out against the attacks on public education and public school teachers,” the group has attracted a substantial following nationwide, including education celebrities such as Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. They are outspoken in their opposition to many educational reform proposals, including school choice, parent-trigger laws, and school and teacher accountability through testing.

I do not doubt the good intentions of the group and its members. But their stubborn adherence to a single means towards education–“traditional schools”–instead of a quality education in any form shows that the group’s stated desire to improve education for kids in this country is disingenuous. 

As I’ve argued in this space before, the reason that tax dollars fund schools is that our society rightly decided that education is a public responsibility; schools and school systems were established because they were believed to be the best means  to fulfill that responsibility. These “traditional” schools have been and continue to be successful in doing that for many kids.

But “many” kids is not all, as most prominently shown in our cities. It is only logical, then, to modify our means of fulfilling the public responsibility to educate. And that’s where Save Our Schools misses the mark.  Traditional schools exist as a means towards the end of quality of education; they have no inherent societal value, and so are only worth “saving” if they are the most efficient and effective way to educate kids. But if we can educate better by tweaking the model–or even jettisoning it altogether–we have a responsibility to do so. Any group unwilling to do that is not truly committed to fulfilling the public responsibility of education.

It is instructive–and somewhat amusing– that on their website Save Our Schools claims to be committed to goals that are literally opposites:”preserv[ing] and transform[ing] public education.” It reads like a tacit admission of how a priority of saving schools is not actually aligned with improving education in general. The group would be well-served by thinking beyond educational tradition and anachronism and actually consider why we have schools.