To improve schools, stop treating them like businesses
There’s no question that the push for standards and accountability is critical to progress in our worst-performing schools. But in the barrage of bottom-line-focused reform, we are losing sight of the actual students who make up a failing or flourishing school.
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They mentioned the obvious: They now wear uniforms and there is less fighting in the halls. “Before it was loud, it was crazy,” said one student. "I'm not going to lie. It was fun. Not because of the whole fighting thing, but because everybody was like, 'Oh, what's up? Oh I know you!' Now it’s just quiet.”
Senior Shaquana Cochran described the pull of failure and the struggle to overcome how the district's poor test scores reflected on her. "You feel like, 'I got to join in the statistic,' " she says. "Sometimes I feel like giving up." She recalls how badly she slacked off her freshman year. “I barely passed. I had a D average. Sophomore year I went up a little.” As a senior, however, she was taking a biology course taught by a college professor and expressing annoyance at kids who came to her school to fool around. What had helped her change course? Was it another initiative in the name of reform, or a testing push?
A teacher's support fuels a remarkable turnaround
Shaquana explained that just as she was about to quit school, she connected with an English teacher whom she credits for helping her through a crisis. She liked this teacher, in part, because she demanded a lot, a sign of caring and respect. “She gives us two hours’ worth of homework a night,” she said.
This teacher, she said, “tries to put the stereotypes in the dirt, like that Hartford has bad kids.” The support she felt spurred her turnaround. “When I start seeing those A’s and B’s, my heart starts fluttering like butterflies,” Shaquana said. “Like I can do it.”
Students like Shaquana do need schools to be fixed. But she won’t be part of a better bottom line – the higher scores and graduation rates schools and policymakers seek – if she is left to navigate a new landscape alone.
To raise numbers, raise students
There’s no question that the push for standards and accountability is critical to progress in our worst-performing schools. But in the barrage of bottom-line-focused reform, we are losing sight of the actual students who make up a failing or flourishing school. Thankfully, as in health care, empirical diagnoses with prescriptions and patient-centered care aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re mutually necessary.
Strong bonds between teachers and students – not just data-driven policy inventions – turn failing schools around. If we want better schools, we need better students. And if we want better students, we must insist that reform value personal connection as much as curricular benchmarks. The lives of real students are behind the test scores, and to raise numbers on the balance sheet, we must raise students up first.