Brockton Success a Collaborative Walk Down a Proven Path

adsit80By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

[Note: On Sep. 30, Harry Keller, ETCJ science education editor, shared Sam Dillon’s “4,100 Students Prove ‘Small Is Better’ Rule Wrong” (NY Times, 9.27.10) in the journal’s staff listserv. A discussion followed, and John responded with this article. Others in this series are Bonnie Bracey Sutton‘s  “Education Is a Collaborative Process: Teachers and Leaders Have to Work Together” and Harry Keller‘s “Breaking Down Barriers.” -js]

I am about to hit the road again, so I don’t have a lot of time, but I will just say the article drives me crazy.

This school instituted a number of educational reforms. A couple are spelled out clearly, especially the idea of the emphasis on reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic in all classes. Another reform spelled out clearly is the elimination of basics classes. These reforms are nothing new — they have been around for decades.

If you look at the famed success of Garfield High School in Los Angeles, the Stand and Deliver school I have mentioned in recent columns [1, 2], you will see that both concepts were at the heart of their reforms. These reforms — and others — have been shown to work before. The problem is that they are rarely tried for a number of reasons, one of which I will highlight here.

So what are the two big lessons we get from the writing of the story? The article focuses on size, and it focuses on the myth that this was a teacher-led reform and the administration just stepped back and let it happen.

Why did I use the word myth? Let’s look at what they article itself said:

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.”

But Dr. Szachowicz and her colleagues did make some teachers uncomfortable, and at least one teacher who refused to participate in the turnaround was eventually dismissed after due process hearings.

So one teacher was threatened with being fired if he did not go along with the reforms, and another teacher was indeed fired for refusing to go along with the reforms. That is not what I would call just sitting back and letting it happen. In fact, that is a courageous act that is rarely done in schools, an act that deals with the primary reason that such reforms are not enacted.

Teacher-led reform was the key concept behind the original Re-Learning program from the Annenberg Institute. Administrators were supposed to just sit back and let it happen. It didn’t work. Annenberg’s analysis of that failure was that a handful of teacher resisters in a school was all it would take to sink a reform effort, and an active administration was necessary to deal with that resistance. Surveys of teachers in failed programs indicated that the inability — or unwillingness — of the administration to deal with resistance was the primary reason for failure in 100% of the failed reform efforts.

I salute Brockton’s success, and I hope everyone takes from this the real reasons for it:

  1. They instituted some well known and proven reforms.
  2. The administration cleared the way by dealing effectively with teacher resistance.

Now, if they look at what Garfield did a couple of decades ago, they will figure out what to do about the math problem, too.

5 Responses

  1. I too find it unfortunate that Mr. Dillon saw fit to spin this success as being the result of an administration showing no leadership. Good leadership is essential to success in any endeavor involving more than a very few people.

    The other point of the article, that big need not be bad, has already been demonstration by the failure of the Gates Foundation initiative (mentioned in the article). Therefore, the article should serve as a positive counterpoint to that negative result and move the discussion on improving schools forward.

    Suggesting that teachers can make schools work on their own distracts from the real message.

    The Brockton High School principal was the leader here. She went to the district administration and convinced them to allow her to try her experiment. She gathered a small group of influential and willing teachers to plan and implement the strategy. She could have simply done what her predecessors have done and not been blamed. instead, she took a chance and led the school to national news making success.

    The only question on people’s minds now should be, “How do we find such leaders for our schools?”

    Could it be that the Gates Foundation initiative failed because when you split a large school into four or five smaller ones, you must find as many leaders, and good leaders are in short supply? Could it be that a good leader at the helm of the large school would make splitting it up appear to be a foolish idea?

    The only benefit I can see from making large schools smaller (certainlyl doesn’t save money) is in providing more training grounds for future leaders of large schools. I think that we have e sufficient number of small schools for that purpose already.

  2. Harry: “The Brockton High School principal was the leader here. She went to the district administration and convinced them to allow her to try her experiment.”

    Harry, you’ve mentioned something similar earlier so I thought I’d better be more direct. If by “principal” you’re referring to Susan Szachowicz, then, according to the article, she was a teacher when the reform movement began. As teachers, she and her colleagues approached the administration . . . . Later, she was appointed principal.

    I bring this up for the sake of clarity when the implication is that the principal, not the teachers, initiated this reform. -Jim S

  3. Thanks, Jim. Fortunately, it really doesn’t matter much. Someone must lead. I found the timeline unclear from the article, but I’ll accept your reading. It would appear that her leadership garnered her the position. Did the previous principal have to be fired to make room, or was it a voluntary departure? Can’t tell.

    The unsettling part of the article was at the end where Mr. Dillon said that Brockton is hiring an outside expert to help them figure out what to do with math. With so much success already, why would they change their model? I’m guessing that the trailblazers are not familiar with mathematics instruction for some reason. If so, then does that mean that their mathematics teachers are educationally conservative?

    All of these thoughts may seem fruitless, but they do have implications for making change elsewhere.

    • Interesting article and conversation. In order for any kind of school reform to be successful there has to be buy-in from the teachers, good leadership from administration, and one or more strong teacher leaders. Strong community support is also important. There has to be a solid foundation of support for the changes to take place. Once changes have been made, it also takes a lot of effort for changes to be sustained.

      Garfield High is a good example of this. The leadership of one driven teacher (who by the way, came from a business background) was instrumental in making the math program successful. However, this change was not sustained. If you look at Garfield’s history since Escalante left there, the math program deteriorated fairly quickly without his energy to keep it going, even though it had administrative support.

      Sustaining change cannot depend on one person’s charisma and/or drive to keep it going. There has to be systemic change not just surface changes.

      • Very good point. Making change is necessary but not sufficient (as they say in math classes). How do you make it stick? What does systemic change mean?

        I spent a great deal of my life inside of corporations, two in particular. In both cases, I watched (mostly after leaving) as they dissolved and were bought up cheap. Both were mainstays of their industry. What happened to each was systemic change but the wrong kind.

        In the first case, it was a old New England family company in a technology-oriented business with huge worldwide sales. They had much larger competitors but were known as the “Cadillac” of their business. The successive presidents of the company were able to go to the local (no outsourcing here) assembly lines and address the workers, from memory, by their first names.

        Eventually, the younger generation came into power. These second-generation family members had grown up with wealth. They didn’t have to work hard. Running the company didn’t mean the same thing to them as to their predecessors. They were more playing than working. Ultimately, the board brought in an outsider, but he also did not understand the old-line culture and tried to modernize. But, modernization meant changing the old ways that worked, abandoning the “Cadillac” approach and trying still to capitalize on that reputation. They failed.

        The other company was a young New England company led by a visionary who revolutionized his market. His success led to growth. Initially, their employee recruiting was largely through “refer a friend.” Eventually, they joined the Fortune 500. At some point, they hired a stereotypical middle manager (maybe more than one). These people tend to replicate themselves. Middle management rot set in. This shining beacon of how great a technology company can be failed too.

        When I started there, I could develop and release a new product in a few months or even less. After a few years of middle management rot, it took a minimum of nine months to accomplish the same thing.

        Thermodynamics laws appear to apply to human affairs too. These two examples of negative systemic change illustrate how difficult it is to make change in the right direction. After enough time of going along to get along, you’ve been infiltrated by plenty of people who will obstruct any effort at change. Even when you’re successful, as at Garfield High, those people are still there keeping their heads down (as they always do) and just giving the appearance of being part of the new order. As soon as the pressure is off, they revert.

        I don’t know for certain how to create real systemic change. I’m not even sure that it’s sustainable in any situation because new leaders may not possess leadership qualities. I watched enough times as good managers were replaced by execrable ones who destroyed their departments.

        Who will hold these people accountable? What incentive will they have to always strive to do better? Who will help them continually find ways to improve? Who will reward great work and lift up the laggards and ultimately remove those who cannot be uplifted?

        As a longtime union supporter (in general, as a principle), I would like to see teachers’ unions change their strategy to allow better education to happen. Three years to tenure, for example, is out of step. In universities, where politics really does make tenure important, it takes seven years. Last-in first-out layoff policies make sense only for bricklayers and plumbers, not for teachers. Pay based entirely on years on the job and number of post-graduate credits accumulated is a recipe for stagnation.

        New technologies open up some potential for making education better. As long as unions prevent this from happening, I say that the unions have too much power. And, the unions aren’t the only obstacle. Politicized school boards cause problems. Institutions that set standards based on means rather than goals create bottlenecks in education that hamper our potential.

        It’s time to stop scapegoating the unions and to use rational thinking to solve our problems. Unions should be a force for good, for those who have no voice and no power. With teachers, there’s an exception because they too often forget that those with the least power and no voice are the children their members teach. Our teachers deserve the wages, working conditions, and benefits that only a union can help them get, but they’ve overreached themselves. I see signs that they’re considering scaling back and refocusing. I hope so and I hope that we can work with them to implement systemic change in our education systems.

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