Tag Archives: reform

Ossining, NY: A School District with the Freedom to Educate

This inspiring story by Jackie Mader in The Hechinger Report about the school district of Ossining, NY contains a lot of interesting information, but what struck me most was an innovative approach the district took to increase integration. They reorganized their four elementary schools so that each school, instead of serving a neighborhood, took one or two grades, and all the children cycled through all the schools together. It is not something that would be right for every community, not something that should be “scaled up”, although it might be something that would work in some other districts. It certainly worked for Ossining.

One of those elementary schools is now the Park Early Childhood Center, which has not only Kindergarten and PreK, but something called the “First Steps Program”, described on their website as “a family outreach program that… may provide assistance with anything that helps family stability, from health screenings and parent workshops to family enrichment, intergenerational activities,” and more.

This is a school district that is responsive to its community, always striving to improve, and addressing needs as they arise. They are able to do that because, as the principal of Ossining High School, Joshua Mandel, is quoted in the article as saying, “We have a supportive community. They give the high school the opportunity to experiment and try different things.” This flexibility is exactly what is necessary to provide for the needs of all students.

This approach is the exact opposite of what is now being promoted by people who call themselves education reformers. I believe most (but not all) of them do have good intentions, but they are fundamentally wrong. Everything they propose reduces the ability of individual teachers, schools and districts to adapt to the different and changing needs of their students. As more and more standardization is required, whether it be in terms of tests, curricula or school structures and practices, less and less room exists for creativity and true innovation. The changes Ossining made would not be right for every community, but they were right for that community, and that is the point.

As Joshua Mandel also said, “There’s not one thing that’s going to fix everything. We’re willing to try different things and to try to instill in our students that we will never give up on them.” These are essential characteristics of a good teacher, school or district, that commitment combined with that experimental attitude, and all good educators know this. It is only possible to exhibit these characteristics, however, in an environment that allows for it.

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Teachers Want to Teach

Teachers love to teach. That may sound obvious, but it is an important fact that the public debate seems to be ignoring. There is nothing better, for a teacher, than seeing a child’s face brighten in comprehension. There are few things more exciting for teachers than a classroom full of engaged students, learning something new.

If you start with a small group of students, all of whom have parents who value education highly, have the time, resources and skills to care for their children’s needs, and respect teachers, then you get to spend almost all your classroom time actually teaching. If you also have access to top-of-the-line materials, the latest technologies, interesting field trips and enrichment activities, you are in teacher heaven.

That situation is of course imaginary. If you have access only to outdated textbooks and computers that, when they work at all, are too old to run current software, even if you could get it, that is frustrating, but you do the best you can. If administrative edicts that bring new meaning to words like “byzantine”,“paradoxical” and just plain “idiotic” make you pull your hair out trying to comply, that is even more frustrating, but you do the best you can. If some of your students are in obvious need of medical or psychological attention, but neither their parents nor the overburdened social services system is meeting that need, then your attempts to make up for that take time and energy from teaching them or any of your other students. That is heartbreaking, but you do the best you can. If, on top of all of that, you are required to take hours away from the little time you have left to fill out endless paperwork, prepare students to take poorly designed tests, and address ludicrous criticisms made by people who have no idea what you do, it is hard not to throw up your hands and quit.

There are stories of teachers who have overcome even the worst circumstances and had brilliant results. This is cited as proof by people who clearly never learned logical thinking, much less critical thinking, that anyone can overcome these terrible circumstances. Even the star schools that seem to be succeeding have a high teacher turnover rate. The question that, incredibly, no one seems to be asking, is why do we continue to put our students and teachers in such terrible circumstances? An education system that requires the the Seal Team Six of educators in order to bring students to a basic level of proficiency is an embarrassment. No one wants to improve the situation more than teachers do.

I spent most of my elementary years in public schools, but I graduated from an expensive, private high school. I remember noticing that every single student in my class, no matter how untalented, unmotivated, or on drugs, graduated and went on to college, at least community college. Our teachers were good, but I highly doubt they were the deciding factor in this phenomenon.

Of course teachers can do better. That is what they most want to do. Perhaps there are some teachers who never cared about kids and just wanted some benefits and a pension, but I don’t know any. I know some who became so burned out by the frustration and the heartbreak that they now occasionally talk like people who have those motives. I know many more who continue to spend nearly every waking hour trying to find better ways to reach more kids more completely. I don’t know a single teacher who works from 9-3 and takes summers off. That is a fallacy. Are lawyers working only when they are in the courtroom? Are surgeons working only when they are in the operating room?

The idea that standardized tests will provide useful information for teachers is asinine. Teachers already give tests, and the good ones know how their students are doing even without tests, because they see their progress every day. They also know which students do well on tests and which ones get nervous. The tests may provide information that is useful to school districts or states, but they don’t tell good teachers anything they don’t already know. These attempts to second guess everything a teacher does are a terrible idea. If you make a job so devoid of decision-making that a monkey could do it, then only a monkey will do it. Anyone with any options will go somewhere else.

Of course bad teachers should be fired, and so should bad principals, and bad superintendents, and bad anything else, but has no one heard of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Good teachers should be respected and encouraged, and protected from things like bad principals and bad superintendents, and even misinformed and overreacting parents, although informed, concerned parents are a teacher’s greatest allies. As for merit pay, that is useful only in forms that don’t pit teachers against each other. Teachers must collaborate, and anything that incentivizes keeping their best practices to themselves is bad for everyone.

It is frustrating and heartbreaking work, but teachers love to teach, and sometimes, when they manage to get clear of the paperwork and bureaucracy and politics for a moment, they get the chance. When teachers protest the new requirements that are endlessly foisted upon them by people who neither understand nor respect what they do, it is not because they want to teach less. It is because they want to teach more. Wouldn’t we all benefit if we let them?

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