Monday, December 17, 2007

Does the Threat of Closing Schools "Work?" A book for those who want to know.

Stocking stuffer #1/left over from last week: I just read Rick Mintrop's Schools on Probation: How Accountability Works (and Doesn't Work) and highly recommend it for those wondering how the threat of closure may play out in NYC and elsewhere.

Based on a study of 11 Maryland and Kentucky schools on probation, Mintrop, a Berkeley edu-prof, found:

Advocates of high-stakes accountability hope that the public exposure of low performance and the threat of further sanctions will move educators to increase work effort and schools to get organized and focused on student achievement. This book shows, in a nutshell, that probation had a weak motivational effect on most educators. The case is different for administrators and small groups of highly involved teachers. Teachers modestly strove to increase test scores and overcome probation primarily because of a desire to be rid of the negative label and diffuse commitment to their school, not because they expected a clear reward. Nor did they consider accountability goals as particularly meaningful orientations for their work.

Like Charlie Clotfelter et al's paper, "Do School Accountability Systems Make it More Difficult for Low Performing Schools to Attract and Retain High Quality Teachers?" (answer: yes), Mintrop looks at the ways that the label of probation pushes educators out the door. It's a useful study and a nice, if depressing, read.


Sherman Dorn said...

I heartily agree on the recommendation!

d.t. said...

All three of the sources you cite are excellent. One recounts actual experiences, not just theories about turning around schools, in states that have good track records in reform. The second "uses a rich administrative data set" to show that North Carolina's "relatively sophisticated school-based accountability system has exacerbated the challenges of retaining and attracting high quality teachers." Among the results it documents are "Most clear are the adverse effects (of the accountability systems) on retention rates, and hence teacher turnover." Thirdly, a conservative think tank reaches the same common sense conclusion that salary is not as important of an incentive as "school climate, student behavior, and the quality of their principals."

Give us the autonomy to do our jobs, and give us a buffer from accountability regimes that violate the dignity of students and teachers alike, and we can attract talent to join the frontlines of the civil rights movement of the 21st century. But we teachers need to avoid the "blame game" which wrecked NCLB. Student misbehavior grows out of a concentration of urban pathologies. So much of the disruptions are cries for help. Schools that allow troubled kids to run wild are just forcing students to increase their misbehavior to get the attention of adults. But we can't blame principals either. The problems are systemic.

People who joined previous crusades for justice did not expect quick victories. We need real incentives (not money) to recruit teachers and any other caring adults to join the long fight.

John Thompson

Anonymous said...

Amen to this post and comments. Sanctions (and administrative responses to them) can ruin a school. Many teachers won't speak up out of fear of reprisal, but the stories are grim.

Administrators are under pressure to show that they're doing something to bring up the test scores (other than changing the kids' answers). This is not their fault; this is NCLB. Yet WHAT they decide to do often makes things worse.

I know of a school where an administrator decided that ESL and ELA classes should take place in adjscent rooms. To facilitate this, she has numerous teachers running back and forth between the first and fourth floors--often lugging bins full of books and supplies. It is one thing to "travel" when necessary. It is another thing for an entire department of teachers to risk broken necks, sidestepping the stampeding kids in the stairwell, just to teach next door to someone.

Supposedly the adminstrator can demonstrate that she was taking steps to increase communication between teachers. Yet with all this rushing around, there is less communication than before. Teachers who brought this up have been told, "Live with it; it's not going to change."

In addition, the administrator decided to introduce some "regularity" into the curriculum. Thus, ALL ESL and ELA classes are required to follow a schedule such as this: graphic organizer on Monday, poetry on Tuesday, written response to literature on Wednesday and Thursday, and note-taking on Friday. (This in addition to the mandated, scripted test prep in the mornings.) She announces the schedule every day over the loudspeakers after the Pledge of Allegiance. She sometimes adds that administrators will be coming around to check on teachers. The students hear all of this.

The rationale? That students need these "skills" for the test, and that some teachers might not be giving the kids regular practice. The outcome? Superficiality. Without time to read a book, there can be no real response to it, either.

The story above is probably mild compared to many others. Principals (and those above them) forget that teachers need resources, systemic support, and a reasonable amount of professional freedom. Yes, and we DO need these things. They are not luxuries; they are staples.

One can argue: "The principal knows this, but he/she is under so much pressure..." True, but at some point someone has to stand up for something. I agree that we should avoid the "blame game," but we should also say no to nonsense. We need healthy, happy, thriving schools, not quasi-jails where everyone feels punished and where crass dogma supersedes genuine thought. We need leadership that recognizes that an excellent book will stay with a student longer than a Venn diagram, and that "inferencing" is not a word.