He again falls into the "teachers are the only thing that matter and good ones work miracles" trap, which seems to be a popular one lately. But he focuses on more than just teachers. Most notably, he talks about school climate. The best and worst part are in the same short paragraph:
Charter schools, of course, can fire teachers for poor performance. “Obviously, none of us should be allowed to be in front of children if we’re not doing a good job,” Ms. Kenny said. “But the threat of being fired if you don’t do a good job is not what makes a teacher great.”
When I have undergrads write papers on education, one mistake many make is thinking that all charter schools are the same (usually that they all work miracles). Herbert is no better. The whole point of charter schools is that they're autonomous and free to innovate. It's hard to make just about any other blanket statement. Charter schools vary widely in their rules, strategies, designs, success, etc. So to matter-of-factly state that charter schools can, "of course," fire teachers at will is absurd on face. Different charter schools have different rules. Besides, the notion that traditional public schools can't fire teachers for poor performance is absurd. Yes, in many it's tough to fire a teacher for poor performance after they've earned tenure -- that's a lot different from the implied "can't" in his statement.
But the end of the paragraph transitions back into a discussion of the school climate. Herbert writes that the main focus of the schools has been on finding "talented and passionate" teachers, but his discussion focuses much more on the culture and climate of the school. Indeed, the founder of the schools focuses as much on developing and keeping great teachers as she does on finding them. And her main strategy (at least according to Herbert) seems to be creating a positive environment where people want to work.
To me, the largest difference between unsuccessful high-poverty, urban schools like the one I taught in and the typical school one usually imagines is the climate of the school. There's undoubtedly a better analogy, but many in our school reported feeling as though they were in a "war zone." The tension and stress were palpable. Neither administrators nor teachers nor students were enjoying themselves.
Which brings me back to what I liked about Herbert's piece. He writes that we focus too much on "program elements" and not enough on other things (like great teachers) when trying to create and replicate successful schools. I agree, but I'd frame is slightly differently. Herbert teeters on the edge of suggesting that all we need to do is find great teachers and nothing else will matter. I'd argue that, to some extent, passion matters more than program; that it's more important that everybody is committed to the same goal than precisely what that goal is (obviously, exceptions abound). To me, what's notable about his description of these schools isn't that they're charter schools or that they employ great teachers (at least according to Bob Herbert), but that everybody seems to be working toward the same goal. And when that happens, it means that administrators don't have to battle teachers and teachers don't have to battle students. Which is a pretty good first step.
Interesting article. Thanks for posting it on your blog. It does seem that the actual quotes by Ms. Kenny involve how she helps her teachers excel by supporting them - but the beginning of the article talks about how "passionate" teachers are key. It sounds like passionate teachers are only PART of the key: Having a supportive administration that backs up its teachers and enforces school discipline rules, along with many other factors, obviously contributes to these schools' success.
Having a supportive administration that backs up its teachers and enforces school discipline rules ... obviously contributes to these schools' success.
Wow. It's too bad we can't duplicate that in existing schools.
I'd argue that, to some extent, passion matters more than program; that it's more important that everybody is committed to the same goal than precisely what that goal is (obviously, exceptions abound).
Sorry - meant to say: TOTALLY agree. Well said.
I certainly hope that Roger Sweeny's comment was sarcasm--if so, it was right on point: the key question about charter schools is always "compared to what?" There are good schools and good teachers in every school governance model.
I like Kenny's piece with exactly the same cautions. Other things do matter--a good teacher in a school with poor leadership, no collaboration, muddled curriculum and zero resources will also struggle.
BTW--I am honored to be on your blogroll, but would you change the URL for "Teacher in a Strange Land" to:
Congrats, Nancy . . . I've made the change
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