Standing at the Back of the Elephant

The headline of Lyndsey Layton’s Washington Post article yesterday reads, “Most states lack expertise to improve worst schools.”  Layton notes in her article that the government’s 3 billion dollar investment hasn’t led to improved performance in our most challenged schools.  Apparently, the states “did not have the staff, technology and expertise to pull those schools out of the bottom rankings.”

The schools that were targeted for improvement had to choose one of four school reform strategies:  replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff; close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school; close the school and reopen it as a charter school; or transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques.

So, billions of dollars and several years after school districts received funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, we are left wondering how to help our neediest schools.  Replacing the principal and staff doesn’t work.  Closing the school and enrolling students in a “better performing school” doesn’t work.  Reopening a school as a charter school doesn’t work.  Transforming a school through new instructional strategies doesn’t work, as if anyone really knows what that means.  Not only did these strategies not work, one third of the schools that received federal funds ended up with declining test scores.

The most we have learned from the federal government’s attempt at school reform is that they are no better than the states are at raising student achievement.  Let’s think of this enigma using a vivid analogy.  Student achievement in our most challenging public schools is the veritable “elephant in the room.”  For the past 20 years, or more, state and federal education officials have waited at the back of the elephant studiously examining what comes out.  Meanwhile, no one has bothered to think about what goes in the front.

How about if we spend the next twenty years focusing on what goes into the elephant?  Let’s start with well-trained, well-paid, teachers and administrators who are supported with resources and time for planning.  Maybe we can staff schools with so many teachers, teaching assistants, and support personnel that no child ever falls through the cracks.  It’s that simple.

American schools have tremendous potential when they are given the resources they need.  If we are not willing to put money and resources into our schools, then stop bothering to study what comes out of the backside of the elephant.  All you will get is…well, you know.

2 Comments
  1. Chris,

    Great insight. We are similar to the Health Care System. Less money on prevention because more money can be made on treatment.

    Let’s provide our kids and families with what they need, well trained and caring staff to help change the communuties.

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