In my first teaching job, I worked as a classroom aide for special needs students in the first through third grade. The students in our class were mainstreamed whenever possible, but they all spent a substantial portion of every day in our class. During the school day, we maintained an academic schedule, and we attempted to give our students a solid grounding in both the academic and social skills they would need to make it as part of a mainstreamed class.
And it was difficult work - it was not atypical for a fight to break out after one student called another student's mom a whore, or for a social exchange to break down into a screaming match over someone not sharing blocks.
But one thing I noticed stuck with me: before a vacation - even something as short as a long weekend - student behavior was more out of control than usual. And when I asked the students about it, they would deny it. But in the days leading up to a vacation, at the end of the day, they would do just about anything not to leave. One student would want to finish their math work; another would take forever to get his coat. Sometimes, a kid would intentionally act out; the time required to actually get in trouble would keep them in school longer.
In this job, I had the good fortune to be mentored by an outside learning specialist, an amazing educator named Jim Keefe. Without his support, I would have drowned; and even on the best of days I still felt largely under water. When I asked Jim about vacations and behavior, he laughed. "Yeah. They hate leaving. School is the most consistent place they know."
And I think about this now as we talk about mass firings of teachers, about school closings becoming a more regular part of the landscape of education, and about federal education funding tied to improvement programs that can lead to public schools being handed over to private companies.
From a certain perspective, closing schools and firing all the teachers and the principal feels right. Hey -- if the kids weren't learning, these teachers must not have been doing their jobs. Get 'em out! Firing people looks decisive, and it appeals to our sense of justice. As Bill Maher says:
...blame the teachers, what with their cushy teachers' lounges, their fat-cat salaries, and their absolute authority in deciding who gets a hall pass. We all remember high school - canning the entire faculty is a nationwide revenge fantasy. Take that, Mrs. Crabtree! And guess what? We're chewing gum and no, we didn't bring enough for everybody.
To state what is hopefully obvious: the school system needs improvement. Data needs to inform the way we teach, the way use curriculum, and the way we create policy. The status quo is not good enough, and even if the status quo was excellent, part of maintaining excellence (in education or really, in any system) is to never stop looking critically at things you consider important.
But as we start to close schools in an effort to improve schools, I remember the kids I taught in my first teaching job, and how they had a hard time gearing up for a long weekend. And I wonder what we know about educational outcomes for students whose academic experience includes surviving a school closure. Do students in these schools get a better education as a result of having their school closed, or their teachers fired? What data is there that looks at rates of college attendance, rates of college completion, average salaries, etc, and compares these students to their peers in other comparable schools? Given that the results of school closure as a means of school improvement appear to be mixed at best, can we say that there is even a correlation between closing low performing schools and improving student educational outcomes?
Arne Duncan gave a speech at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference. In this speech, he said:
States and districts have a legal obligation to hold administrators and teachers accountable, demand change and, where necessary, compel it. They have a moral obligation to do the right thing for those children—no matter how painful and unpleasant.
This logic assumes that states and districts actually have the answer, and that the "best" solution has not been achieved simply due to bad execution. You cannot compel something you don't understand.
And, by this same logic of "doing the right thing for the children-no matter how painful and unpleasant," if accountability is our yardstick, why should the firings stop with teachers? If a school is failing, why not fire all of the administrators at the school district? The school board? The mayor? The head of the state Department of Education? The Federal Education Secretary him- or herself?
It is very fashionable to speak about corporate-style management in schools; in general, I don't think it makes much sense, especially given what the corporate world has foisted upon us in recent years, but I recently came across one model that could inform how we approach turning around failing schools. When the FDIC takes over a failed bank, a team of professionals trained in the process of turning around banks descends on the bank. Once on site, they spend weeks or months working through the transition. You can hear about this process from a piece on This American Life (skip to Act Two: Unbreaking the Bank). The story of closing a bank is oddly, almost disconcertingly, emotional. As both our financial system and our educational system lurch away from the precipice, I would like to see our schools treated as humanely as our banks.