How to Create Reform-Proof Schools

I have a friend who teaches AP Math courses at a good public high school here in Atlanta.   He has about fifteen years in the system and is, hands down, a good teacher.   I was talking to him last week about what has changed in his school over his time there, and he told me that it is getting harder to teach.  He told me that each year there seems to be more accountability initiatives reaching into his classroom, asking him to count this or document that.  Basically he said that it is getting harder for him to keep his head down and teach.

Still, he told me if he has learned one thing it is to just wait the new initiatives out, as most had a half life of about a year or so.   He had developed his own means to seal himself off from them and the chaos and uncertainty they often inflict on schools and classrooms.  He had firewalls up, but told me that it was getting harder to keep them up as all of the new accountability measures tried to make him more of an accountant than a teacher.  Worse yet, the things he was being told to do made no sense in his classroom or with his students.  They were often worse than ineffective, as they made things worse.

I was a pharmacist a long time ago, and if there was one thing I learned it was that the indiscriminate use of antibiotics led to bacterial resistance.  Using these powerful drugs willy-nilly or haphazardly gave the bugs a chance to build resistance to them, which has led to the evolution of superbugs that have developed resistance to all of our antibiotics.  It turns out that bacterium can even pass resistance to other bacterium, which means that over time many antibiotics become useless.

Ok, teachers are not germs and schools are not sick.  But the notion of reform as the ongoing treatment of schools with fixes that are poorly designed and implemented to the point of producing massive resistance is an apt metaphor for what is happening with teachers and schools.  In some ways this resistance has enabled them to survive the endless onslaught of reforms and change over the last fifteen years.  In other ways it has sealed them off from real change.

My friend knows a lot about teaching and learning.  He reads widely on it and the more he learns the harder it is for him to teach at his school.  One of the problems is that nobody asks or enlists him in the process of improving his school- or his practice.   That is left to others who supposedly know better, who get to tell teachers what to do.   This leaves my friend having to learn how to do otherwise and teach to the best of his ability.

I still cannot get over the amount of waste that this model creates in education.  Teachers spend more time fighting and trying to figure out the newest “bestest” approach that is always coming down the pike than actually learning from and with each other  about how to best teach their students.   After years of the same thing- endless yet ineffective change- the teachers begin to tire of it and, as my friend told me, from being treated like children.  It is no surprise why so many good teachers leave teaching.

At the Workshop an educational model was not imposed on us.  We designed it.  We drew from our experiences and the best research on teaching and learning.  We then implemented it and are learning in and from it.  We are all in.  If it had been imposed on us by the some new CEO, I am not sure it would have worked.   But we are all in, which means that we are invested in learning from our experiment how to educate students better.  We are not implementing someone else’s agenda, but rather realizing our own ideas.   There is no agenda or BS we have hide from or find ways to circumvent or resist.  Instead it is all about the learning.

And it is no accident or surprise that this is precisely what the students say they love about the Workshop.