Friday, August 28, 2009

Forgetting the First Line

Imagine for a moment that you're the principal of a school and it comes to your attention that a child is failing his social studies class. Obviously, this is not good news. The news gets worse, though, when you're told that if you want to continue to receive resources for your school you have to follow a very strict menu of options in order to improve the performance. Your options are:

- Suspend the student and bring him back in a new class
- Suspend the student and transfer him to a new school
- Fire the social studies teacher and dramatically restructure the classroom's procedures and methods

Seems a bit extreme, doesn't it? Nowhere in there is the option given to work directly with the student and/or teacher to find strategies to improve that student's performance. Everything is about a radical restructuring to shake up the very foundation.

The reason I present this little hypothetical scenario is that Arne Duncan has made it clear to states what steps they need to take with their failing schools in order to receive money from the School Improvement Fund. The name of the fund itself is a bit of a misnomer because the steps have less to do with improving existing schools than opening new and better schools. Here are the options:

- Close and reopen failing schools with new teachers and principals.
- Close and reopen failing schools under management of a charter school company or similar group.
- Close failing schools and send students to high-achieving schools in the same district.
- Replace a failing school's principal and overhaul its operations.

On the one hand, I totally approve of the focus the administration is putting on turning around the lowest performing schools and I think that in many of those cases dramatic action may be required. However, I fail to see how bringing in a new group of teachers and administrators is automatically going to equate to a better school. In some - perhaps even many - cases, it may do just that. But there is nothing intrinsically more effective about a new staff than an old one. In my mind, the first line of defense should always be to work with what's available and make it as good as it can possibly be. If you do that and it's still not good enough, that's when you bring in the new crew. But shouldn't you start with trying to improve what you already have?

In other words, try tutoring the kid after school before you ship him off somewhere else.

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