Transform, Don’t Restructure

I am terribly disappointed with my former school district this week.

This recent article reported the restructuring efforts taking place at the Cooperative Middle School (CMS) in Exeter, NH.  (Full disclosure:  I worked at CMS for nearly a decade.  The school and the people that work there are still very close to my heart)  This restructuring process is a direct byproduct of NCLB as CMS has been a victim of that broken legislation.  Despite test scores that rank among the top in the state (for those who care), continual improvements in the test scores of both educationally disabled and economically disadvantaged students, the school being awarded the New Hampshire Excellence in Education Award as the state’s top middle school in 2008, and a top notch reputation across the state, the school has been defined as a “School in Need of Improvement” through the limited scope of NCLB for the past several years.

As a result of that designation, the school has to be “restructured”.

What bothers me most about this designation is the reasoning of one member of the school board, and the solution not given by anyone.

First, the school board perspective as quoted from the article above.

According to Townley Chisolm, chairman of the school district’s curriculum and philosophy committee, one of the main goals of restructuring is to increase test scores for students in all subgroups of the school when it comes to the annual New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP). The NECAP exam, administered each fall, determines whether a school makes Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in reading or math. To exit the SINI status, a school must have students in all subgroups meet performance targets on the NECAP and make AYP for two consecutive years.

Chisolm said that although changes are geared to improve all students’ achievements, the school district is focusing on improving curriculum for students identified as economically disadvantaged and educationally disabled, because those subgroups have had a harder time making AYP.

Mr. Chisholm, as a constituent of the Exeter Region Cooperative School District, let me say this loud and clear:  I don’t care how my kids (or CMS kids in general) do on the state assessment.  I have come to learn that we can’t be in the business of chasing data and I don’t believe that the true impact the CMS teachers have on our kids is adequately measured by how well our student can fill in dots.  In the words of Will Richardson, those tests are about content and knowledge, not learning.

But, I don’t blame you completely because we are all victims of NCLB and the allure of higher, albeit meaningless test scores.  CMS is forced to “restructure” not in the best interest of kids, but in the best interest of test scores.  CMS is restructuring to get off the damn list.  There’s no discussion of personalizing education (beyond higher test scores), helping kids discover passions, providing time for students to dig deeply and solve problems as describe by Shawn Cornally in his TEDx talk, or develop knowledge and skills beyond those found on the tests.

Will Richardson recently lamented on the fact that “a) this country has pretty much lost its way and that b) at the end of the day, our education system carries much of the blame.” He went on to write,

It’s bad enough that we’re bleeding kids to the tune of 7,000 a day from the system, [1,200,000] a year.  That’s not all due to the test, certainly, but much of it is due to being subjected to a curriculum that is driven by the one size fits all outcomes that we’ve set up for them. Read Seymour Papert’s list of 8 Big Ideas for Constructionist Learning and ask yourself seriously how much of that goes on in your school. My guess is not much, and the primary reason is we don’t value that stuff more than we value making sure kids pass the test. We don’t give kids time to go deep, we don’t honor failure, and we’re not about “learning to learn” as much as we are about “learning to know.” So many of our kids are disengaged or simply not interested in learning because they see no benefits past the exam. Are we really surprised that so many adults in our society aren’t learners? So many teachers, in fact? That’s not our emphasis in schools.

Well, Will, my guess is that not much time was given to discussing Papert’s list here is Exeter, because “restructuring” and “constructing” are rarely part of the same conversation.

Now, the solution not given.

What isn’t said here is that district leadership had a choice not to restructure.  If indeed transformation needed to take place, they had the choice to do it internally, without the NCLB hoops and dependence upon arbitrary (math and reading) test scores.  All they had to do was say “no” to $250,000 in Title I funding.  I know, in these economic times how can anyone say no to a quarter of a million dollars, but in a $45M budget, the Title I funding amounts to less than 1%.  So, for less than 1%, school leaders have allowed the state and a broken piece of legislation to help dictate what changes need to be made.   They have taken the power out of the hands of professionals at CMS and sold it to the restructuring process as outlined by NCLB.  While true transformation (not restructuring) needs to take place at the school level in an almost grassroots effort, by accepting these monies, district leadership has ceded oversight to state officials.  And, by the way, I know these state officials personally.  They are all great people with years of experience in education, but they don’t know anymore about what’s happening in our local middle school than what we know is happening in theirs.  In fact, their hands are tied by NCLB regulations and while the number of schools going through this restructuring process has grown, their resources are have decreased.  By accepting these funds, district leaders have taken the ability to lead and affect change out of the capable hands of professional educators at CMS and into the hands of an overworked and understaffed Department of Education.  For less than 1%.

Having been involved in writing these plans under NCLB guidelines in the past, I guarantee that CMS’ restructuring plan doesn’t delve into any meaningful, long term reform.  Instead, I’m sure that it focuses on “strategies” to help students be more compliant and do better on the test.  As a good friend and mentor of mine often said, this restructuring is no different than “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”  If indeed transformation was needed (as determined by something more meaningful than three weeks of testing in October), its time build a different boat.

Channeling Sir Ken Robinson, I have to believe that the professionals at CMS would do more for kids if they were allowed to stop trying to make their kids fit into their school structure and started making their school structure better fit their kids.  But then again, there are 250,000 reasons why they weren’t allowed to do that.


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