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Icarus and School Reform


by Larry Ferlazzo - November 17, 2011

Many efforts by self-styled "school reformers" are like a "fractured fairy tale" version of the Icarus Greek myth. Icarus escaped from prison through the ingenious use of wings made of feathers and wax -- a brilliant idea. However, he ignored warnings to stay away from the sun, so the wax melted and he fell into the sea. Some school reformers seize on great ideas, but then, like Icarus, get so exhilarated by them that they, too, throw all caution to the wind. The "fractured" part in this version, though, is that it's not them who end up suffering the consequences of their exuberance. No, it's us teachers and our students who end up "falling into the sea" as a result. The ideas that can get warped and destructive as they are applied in the name of school reform include videotaping teachers, using student surveys, encouraging social emotional learning (SEL), and emphasizing the importance of the parent/school connection. I describe how they, instead, can be used to more effectively help students, their families, teachers, and schools.

Many efforts by self-styled "school reformers" remind me of a "fractured fairy tale" version of the Icarus Greek myth. As you might remember, Icarus escaped from prison through the ingenious use of wings made of feathers and wax -- a brilliant idea. However, he ignored warnings to stay away from the sun, so the wax melted and he fell into the sea.


Some school reformers seize on great ideas, but then, like Icarus, get so exhilarated by them that they, too, throw all caution to the wind. The "fractured" part in this version, though, is that it's not them who end up suffering the consequences of their exuberance. No, it's us teachers and our students who end up "falling into the sea" as a result.


One of these "great ideas" is videotaping teachers. My colleagues and I have learned an incredible amount from having our lessons videotaped by an instructional coach, who has been working with our school for years.  In this voluntary program, he meets with us to review an edited version of a taped lesson, with us initially giving our own critique and reflections followed by his comments. This process is entirely outside of the official evaluation process, and is focused on helping teachers improve their craft. At my personal request (not a typical part of the process), we subsequently show the video and share our critique with my entire class, which is a transforming experience for all involved.


Contrast this effort with the massive Gates Foundation-funded effort to videotape teacher lessons and have them evaluated (using checklists and standardized test score correlations) by people who have never visited the school nor developed any kind of relationship with the teacher.


Another excellent idea is using student surveys in classes. Again, as part of the same video project, the Gates Foundation is collecting thousands of student surveys where they evaluate their teachers and classes, and then attempt to correlate it with standardized test results.


But in the surveys I use constantly in my classes, I want to know more from students than what Gates is asking. I want to know if they think I’m patient and if they believe I care about their lives outside of school. Yes, I certainly want to know what they think I could do better, and I also want to know what they think they could do better. I want to learn if they think their reading habits have changed and, for example, when I’m teaching a history class, are they more interested in learning about history than they were prior to taking the class. I want to find-out what they believe are the most important things they learned in the class. For many, it might be learning life skills like the fact their brain actually grows when they learn new things or the fact that they had in them the capacity to complete reading a book or writing an essay for the first time in their lives. And, in the discussion that follows (one thing I learned during my prior nineteen year career as a community organizer is that a survey’s true use is as a spark for a conversation) we discuss all these things and many more, including the differences between what we might like the best and which activities help us learn the most.


And, in both the video and survey instances, where the school reformers want to be data-driven, I prefer to be data-informed. Test results are just one of many indicators I want to consider in evaluating a student, a teacher and a school. They can be an important indicator, but not the primary one.


Some KIPP charter schools are beginning to issue "character report cards" grading students on seven areas — self-control, optimism, grit, gratitude, zest, curiosity and 'social intelligence.' I applaud a desire by schools to incorporate social-emotional learning strategies in their classes  -- it's another excellent idea that I hope will spread far and wide. I do so in many of my classes, and even wrote a book about them. But why corrupt the process by assigning grades to elements of character? If you start grading them, then intentionally or unintentionally, you are making the grade the primary reason why these traits are important. Your next step is to invent artificial performance tasks to use as grading "markers." Instead, we should focus on encouragement and self-reflection, and help students see how developing these qualities are in their short and long-term self-interest.


We should do everything possible to enhance parents' connection to schools, another idea highlighted by many school reformers. I've written a book and many articles about strategies to do this successfully, especially clarifying the difference between parent "involvement" and parent "engagement." In involvement, among other qualities, schools tend to lead with their "mouths" while, in engagement, we tend to lead with our "ears." Teacher home visits, community organizing around neighborhood problems, family literacy efforts, and community gardens are just a few possible parent "engagement" strategies emphasizing this listening quality.


However, instead of embracing these kinds of genuine strategies that have long histories of success among countless schools around the country, many school reformers have seized on the divisive and destructive idea of the parent "trigger." “Parent trigger” laws, first passed in California and then elsewhere in the country, typically state that over 50 percent of the parents in a school or schools “feeding into” that school can sign a petition demanding that the district either convert the school into a charter, close it, hire a new principal, or bring in new staff.


In the nation's first attempt at using the law -- one that was ultimately unsuccessful -- Parent Revolution, an outside group with no ties to a local community, parachuted five fulltime organizers into a neighborhood that they picked for its demographics. The group, initially begun by charter school operators, has a clear agenda and is generously funded by several foundations with their own clear school reform agenda, including the Walton, Broad, and Gates foundations. It had no serious discussions with other stakeholders to identify common issues and explore new solutions and then issued a non-negotiable demand to convert into a charter school.


Videotaping teachers, using student surveys, encouraging social emotional learning (SEL), and emphasizing the importance of the parent/school connection -- used appropriately -- are all important ways that can help students, their families, and teachers escape "prisons" of poverty, a sense of powerlessness, and professional stagnation.


I just wish many school reformers would learn that the effectiveness of these concepts depends on how they are implemented. They can be effective in one way, or "melt our wax" if used in another….




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 17, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16608, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 10:52:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Larry Ferlazzo
    Luther Burbank High School
    E-mail Author
    LARRY FERLAZZO teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He writes a popular blog for teachers and a weekly teacher advice column for Education Week Teacher, and has authored several books on education.
 
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