A more excellent way

If you haven’t read it yet, run—don’t walk—to check out Marc Fisher’s Washington Post article on how a high-needs, failing school in Maryland remade itself into a successful learning environment for children through collaboration, hard work, and good old-fashioned caring. Fisher contrasts this approach to that of D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Claus vonZastrow over at Public School Insights picks up on the glaring contrast with a compelling analysis of his own.

Cooperation is a welcome and refreshing change from the confrontational battles over ed reform that have dominated both policy discussions and media for some time. Personally, I know of more troubled schools that have been “turned around” through people coming together and really putting the interests of the students first, than through the scorched earth approach of some high-profile educational and political leaders.

I am reminded of a particular elementary school some years ago in my hometown. Located in one of the worst, most drug infested areas of the city, the academic program was nonexistant; the only constant was survival. Then the parents, teachers, and administrators of that school banded together and decided to take their school back. In a few short years, it became a model school with one of the strongest educational programs not only in the state but the nation. The key was refusing to continue the blame game, and instead focusing on what needed to be done, by recognizing and utilizing the talents and resources that were already available.

Similarly, I worked at a high-poverty rural high school that had nearly collapsed academically and organizationally. The principal, assistant principal, and guidance counselor all quit two months before the end of a horrendous school year. When I arrived there the next fall, along with a team of new administrators, we found that what was holding the school together was a core of dedicated veteran teachers who, along with the school’s parents, simply refused to give up on the students. By listening closely to them and building on the foundation they had established, the school soon reached, and gradually surpassed, state proficiency standards. More important, the community and the students regained pride and respect for their school.

Such approaches to successful reform require mutal respect among the key shareholders of the school: students, parents, teachers, administrators, support personnel, and political leaders.What’s wrong with starting our reform efforts by expecting that all children can learn? That most parents love their children and are doing as much as they can or know to help them succeed? Or that the majority of teachers are professionals who care about students and want them to excel? A school reform effort grounded in these expectations can generate the cohesion and trust needed for significant and sustainable improvement.

Perhaps our schools are less in need of a purge and more in need of revival.

1 Corinthians 13:13