Why reforms in education don't transform as earlier emphasized in this blog could not only be blamed to the educational planners and implementers at the national level but more importantly at the grassroots or school level. Not only the wait and see attitude, varying interpretations to national policies, cascading effects of information once relayed and institutional cultures but most importantly, behaviors and attitudes of teachers and school heads.
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Drawing from hands-on experience rather than ivory-tower theory, Wendy Kopp, a best seller book author in the US who was trained in business rather than education, boldly yet reflectively cuts through policy and debates to detail what it really takes to achieve what she calls “transformational” education.
Wendy Kopp, a 1989 graduate of Princeton University, created a teaching corps of America’s best and brightest new graduates to teach for two years in the country’s most disadvantaged schools.
Her journey is chronicled in her first book “One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America (TFA) and What I Learned along the Way.”
After describing how TFA teachers succeed against huge odds, Kopp says, “Success is possible in classrooms in low-income communities if we redefine the role of the teacher to mean more than providing access to learning experiences. [Successful] teachers set out to inspire their students to assume responsibility for meeting ambitious academic goals, and they commit to doing whatever it takes to ensure their students succeed—providing the academic rigor and the extra support necessary to meet their extra needs.
“Teachers who redefine their roles don’t need to wait to solve poverty before their students can fulfill their potential. They can partner with children and their families to provide an education that changes their likely path and enables them to ‘make history.’”
Successful teachers need the same skills of successful leaders in any other field. They need to track goals, maximize efforts, change course if necessary. They need great energy, discipline and hard work.
Other significant characteristics are: “past demonstrated achievement, perseverance, the ability to influence and motivate others, critical thinking skills, organizational ability.”
Successful schools have a precise vision, and work hard towards it. “[Transformational] schools aspire not to equality of inputs but rather to equality of outputs,” says Kopp. “They are aspiring not to ensure their students have access to the same books, or dollars, or hours, but rather, that they achieve the same levels of performance and learning and the same life opportunities. That means doing whatever it takes to level the playing field for their students.”
Kimmel says, “Everything starts with teacher quality. There are many factors at play, but I’m dead in the water if I don’t have great teachers. It all comes down to the two-sided coin of teacher recruitment and retention.”
The best administrators do not lord it over teachers. Chris Barbic of Yes Prep campus in Houston, Texas, which has one of the best college performance rates in the state, says he “spends most of my time thinking about how to find, and do we have, and how do we keep, and are we developing, the right people in our schools.” Good principals “search for, cajole, beg and win over teachers to join them to achieve their vision of success for their students.” They also ensure that their best teachers stay.
“Teachers stay when they are surrounded by colleagues and a culture that value their contributions,” says Kopp. Effective administrators provide ways for teachers to have broader impact, such as becoming “master teachers who coach and guide colleagues.”
Teachers stay when they feel they can grow as instructors and as leaders, thus professional development is essential. “The first step is finding great people,” says Kimmel, “the next step is supporting them to go from good to great or from great to greater.”
The retention rate at Wheels is 90 percent, “almost unheard of in many schools in low-income communities” and, I am certain, even in schools for the privileged.
Great schools insist on a culture of excellence. TFA alumnus Reid Whitaker, who now heads Port Houston Elementary, cites the awards his good teachers have earned, and explains why ineffective teachers left.
“If you create a culture of positive goodwill that is built on team responsibility and centered on really high expectations for students, people who are not team players leave. I have worked hard to create a culture that attracts the right people and repels the people who should go. I’ve only fired one teacher, but a number of teachers have left because they knew they weren’t giving their all and didn’t want to be in the spotlight here. In our school, anyone who is not giving 100 percent, who is not working as a team member, who is not working so hard for their students, they stand out like a sore thumb, and that’s uncomfortable.”
When TFA alumna Michelle Rhee arrived in the District of Columbia in 2008, she found “five million unfiled personnel records stacked up in storerooms” with “some teachers not being paid on time while others who had left were still receiving paychecks.”
Thousands of work orders for school maintenance were not done, and around half of the city’s schools “had not received textbooks by the start of the school year, or had received the wrong ones.” Sound familiar?
Rhee had to fix the system fast. Personnel files were updated, e-mail systems streamlined, financial records digitized, resources reallocated. In her most controversial decision on her first year, Rhee closed down 23 schools to free up resources so that “every school could [finally] have an art teacher, a PE teacher and a nurse.” Rhee made a lot of enemies, and since the Democratic Party mayor lost the recent midterm elections, she had to resign. The good news—Kaya Henderson, her successor, is also a TFA alumna and also demands excellence.
Transformational leadership requires guts and resolve, honesty and accountability. In Kopp’s book, the chapter on “Scaling Success” should be required reading for every public official and employee involved in education.
“A Chance to Make History” by Wendy Kopp (2011, Public Affairs) is available in National Book Store.