Thursday, September 30, 2010

4,100 Students Prove ‘Small Is Better’ Rule Wrong

This front-page story in today's NYT about the turnaround of a failing high school – one of the biggest in the country – is a REALLY important one.  Here's why: there is no bigger champion of high-performing charter schools, but after enormous effort over more than a decade, charter schools have a mere 3% market share – and maybe only 10% of them are schools any of us would send our kids to, so that's 0.3%.  I'm not knocking this incredible, inspiring effort and the impact has been FAR more than 0.3%, as these schools have been laboratories of innovation, shown what's possible, and literally changed the national debate on this issue – but the reality is that we will NEVER be able to replace the existing system, even with unlimited facilities and funding for charters, full-blown voucher/tax-credit programs, etc., so to serve ALL kids well, WE MUST FIX THE EXISTING SYSTEM!  Therefore, we should be studying, publicizing, funding, and seeking to replicate the type of school-based, teacher-led efforts highlighted in this article:

A decade ago, Brockton High School was a case study in failure. Teachers and administrators often voiced the unofficial school motto in hallway chitchat: students have a right to fail if they want. And many of them did — only a quarter of the students passed statewide exams. One in three dropped out.

Then Susan Szachowicz and a handful of fellow teachers decided to take action. They persuaded administrators to let them organize a schoolwide campaign that involved reading and writing lessons into every class in all subjects, including gym.

Their efforts paid off quickly. In 2001 testing, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts. The gains continued. This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools. And its turnaround is getting new attention in a report, "How High Schools Become Exemplary," published last month by Ronald F. Ferguson, an economist at Harvard who researches the minority achievement gap.

What makes Brockton High's story surprising is that, with 4,100 students, it is an exception to what has become received wisdom in many educational circles — that small is almost always better.


The most interesting line of this article is this one:

Some teachers dragged their feet. Michael Thomas, now the district's operations director but who led the school's physical education department at the time, recalled that several of his teachers told him, "This is gym; we shouldn't have to teach writing." Mr. Thomas said he replied, "If you want to work at Brockton High, it's your job."

Does this mean that Thomas could have fired the gym teacher?  I highly doubt it – the union would have grieved it (and won).  I think what really happened here is that a core group of teachers (let's say 20%) developed a plan, it started to work, and then momentum built that drew in the middle 60%.  That left the least competent, most burned out and/or least caring 20% of teachers in the minority – and they were likely feeling the peer pressure, which is FAR more powerful than threats to fire someone.


I've seen similar dynamics at work in all sorts of turnarounds in the corporate world.  20% of the employees are motivated, effective and working hard, 60% are in the middle, and 20% are bad apples.  There's a tug of war between the top and bottom 20% and the middle 60% will follow whoever wins.  Thus, the key to turnarounds is twofold: A) Motivate and empower the top 20% and help them show some quick success, so they can "tip" the middle 60%; and B) quickly remove a bunch of the bad apples (which of course is MUCH harder to do in schools than in a business).


4,100 Students Prove 'Small Is Better' Rule Wrong

Published: September 27, 2010

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