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.

Despite all the talk of “investing in education,” you’d be outraged if Wall Street traders could actually buy and sell stock in your local school. Who wants investors betting for – or against – student performance?

Absurd as it sounds, we’re headed there. Just as corporations have become their stock prices, public schools are becoming their test scores. The school-as-business model that has gained momentum over the past decade now dominates education reform. In this high-stakes testing world of guts-and-glory races to the top, students are statistics. Without saying that test results don’t matter – they do – the real job at hand is not just turning around schools, but turning around students.

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Just at the moment when we need to rethink our educational goals and are asking students to reassess their effort levels, we are abandoning what makes education great: It’s personal.

Maybe we should think of education more like health care. An ideal health-care system applies cutting-edge scientific advances while valuing personal treatment and care for patients.

There is spreading awareness that personal connections matter, that doctors and nurses must do more than execute procedures; they must engage in “compassionate care.” What’s more, while it was once considered a matter of happenstance to get a doctor with a warm bedside manner, we now know these relationship skills can – and should – be taught.

In schools and sickness, caring counts a lot

The approach also yields results. Last August, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that terminal lung cancer patients who received palliative care at diagnosis rather than in the last weeks of life were happier and, stunningly, lived almost three months longer on average than the group of patients who did not. The palliative care included pain relief but also help addressing worries, and talking with patients to ensure they had help with meals, dressing, and bathing when not in the hospital. Atul Gawandi, a Harvard Medical School surgeon and writer who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times that the results were “amazing.”

There’s obviously a difference between terminal disease and rock-bottom schools. But as we ask poor urban students, many of whom do not know a single person who has attended college or has a salaried job, to hit the books and reach for big careers (“law and government academy,” anyone?), we must provide some – well – care.

Last school year, I spent time reporting for a book, “Inside School Turnarounds,” on the long-term approaches as well as in-the-moment challenges of fixing some of the worst schools in the country. One school – the Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School in Cincinnati – was named a 2010 Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education this September. It has gone from “academic emergency” to “excellent,” Ohio’s highest rating. Graduation rates have risen from 25 percent to 95 percent, and test scores have soared so that nearly 95 percent of students are passing the state’s high school graduation tests in nearly every subject.

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What makes the turnaround noteworthy is that it took nearly a decade. This work is not magic. Principal Anthony Smith did it by building relationships, going door to door in the community asking for residents’ support. He also didn’t fire any teachers, but sat down with each one to hear how he or she could do better. He has rebuilt the school culture, surrounding students with adults, role models, and support. He has woven study time into after-school sports programs. He serves breakfast and lunch and wants to add dinner.

Mr. Smith has partnered with regional communications company Cincinnati Bell. Students with strong GPAs get cellphones and laptops plus their homes wired for Internet access. He’s also built a tutoring program with the company in which Bell employees tutor students on company time. Sure, this has helped with test scores, but it has also fostered relationships between students and adults. One pregnant teen who went into labor called her tutor first. Cincinnati Bell chief executive officer Jack Cassidy is so involved that every Taft student has his cellphone number. And, yes, kids call.

It's not about formulas – it's about the kids

Smith wasn’t looking to please policymakers or simply meet high-stakes testing goals. “My covenant was with the community, not necessarily the board of education,” he told me. He is not “bringing to scale” a turnaround model or clever education idea. He is simply taking care of his kids. The test scores followed.

When you talk with students about school turnaround, you realize how much this is about them – not just the school’s data points. What changes their paths isn’t a formula or a grueling push for a better profile. It’s a connection, a context, a caring.

Last December, I gathered with students at Hartford (Conn.) Public High School. It’s beena failing school (less than two-thirds who started made it to graduation) that in 2008 was split into four smaller academies as part of a new turnaround effort.

I asked: Was it working? What was different?

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.”

IN PICTURES: Graduation 2010

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.

Laura Pappano is a journalist, a writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., and author of "Inside School Turnarounds."

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