I've been hearing a lot lately about the chronically underperforming school in Rhode Island that decided to fire all its teachers so as get kids to do better. For those of you who missed that in the news, basically what happened is this: Central Falls High School graduates only about half of its students and has some abysmal percentage of students who pass state proficiency tests (I'm not sure about the numbers, but it seems like somewhere to the tune of 11% of students were "proficient" on whatever tests they have to determine that). After teachers refused to add time to the school day and provide extra-curricular tutoring without extra pay, the district decided to just fire them all and start over.
Really? So here we have an underperforming school from the poorest city in Rhode Island, and the best solution to help students do better is to get rid of everyone who was already trying? Where, I wonder, are they going to find 80 more (or whatever it was) quality teachers who just so happen to want to work in a really, really poor district, with severely disadvantaged kids, in a school where they can't count on any job security? Did that really seem like a good idea?
It's all so ridiculous. There's so much talk about improving achievement and getting more kids to graduate and--of course--racing to the top, but I think we're largely ignoring the real issues. Kids will do better when they have teachers who are invested in their success. And teachers who are truly invested in their students doing well don't need different evaluation techniques, don't need longer school days, don't need all manner of fancy-schmancy new scheduling, and don't need different pay scales (though it would certainly be nice!). What they need is working conditions that allow them to get their job done.
A longer school day will achieve nothing if students are still crammed into classes of 35. Better pay will do nothing if teachers don't have time to plan. A block schedule won't do anything if teachers don't have a chance to think about and then execute what they know is best for their specific students. We don't need anything fancy. We just need to spend our efforts creating environments where students can actually thrive, where there are few enough of them that no one gets lost, where teachers can teach instead of babysit and where they can teach their students instead of their curriculum.
Forget the drastic measures like starting a school over, hiring a whole new staff, making the school day 8 hours instead of 6 (really? It's hard enough to stay mentally focused for 6. Is two extra hours of sitting in a desk really going to achieve that much?). All of those drastic moves seem born of desperation; once you do something like that, you've already lost the war. I think the solution is much more simple than we make it out to be--but no one wants to talk about it because, after all, it means a radical restructuring of schools. Cut the class size. It's not going to fix everything, but it's a start, and a way better one than anything I've seen floating around in the news.