As a Parent and a Former Teacher, Let Me Tell You Why School Improvement Is So Hard

On Tuesday, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation held an event to report on the first year of work done by 21 grantees focused on building networks for school improvement. To date, Gates has invested $93 million in the effort, mostly in substantial, multi-year awards. School improvement is hard. It’s also hard to explain to people outside schools. And it takes more time than anyone would like. But patience with the work has brought rewards to a number of districts, including Chicago.

Why is this work so hard? There are two main reasons. First, it requires educators to talk honestly about the hard parts of their jobs and admit where they are struggling the most. Who likes to do that?

And teachers have extra reasons not to like it, thanks to the excruciating levels of pressure many have faced in struggling, under-resourced schools, especially when ordered to deliver extraordinary gains on standardized tests in a year. One speaker described it as “PTSD.”

As a teacher who left the profession for good after a brief return in 2006, I can relate. I walked in the door and was told my job was to raise my students’ EXPLORE test scores two points in a year. I had been out of the classroom for 12 years, took the job with three days to prepare before the kids arrived, and was just trying to stay one book ahead of my English students. Just three weeks in, I was drowning and my principal knew it.

I took a day off for a previously-planned trip to the Jersey shore. It took about 24 hours for the cortisol to wear off to the point where I could think rationally again. When I took the call from my principal, sitting on a balcony overlooking Cape May, and he suggested that if I could just hang in there through progress reports they could replace me with a certified recent graduate who was already subbing, I was ready to say yes.

To this day I don’t know whether it was foolish to start in the first place or if my intense anxiety about not meeting the goal was a bigger problem than whatever results my students might actually have achieved with me in their classroom. Either way, the experience left me with a visceral understanding of what it’s like to be asked to start a job and discover you don’t have the time and tools needed to succeed.

School Improvement Demands We Talk About Racism

Here’s the other hard part: school improvement demands honest discussion about systemic racism, both in systems and structures and in teachers’ own internal biases. As Derek Mitchell of Partners in School Innovation put it, school people must look at data for patterns related to race, class, culture and power. “If you see something in your data that shows a pattern related to these, you need to do something about it. It takes courage to do that. We build that courage in our people.”

But you can’t build that courage if there is zero foundation to build on. When asked what schools must already have in place before starting a formal process of continuous learning around school improvement, Learning Forward’s Michelle Bowman suggested staff ask themselves one question: ““Are we willing to engage in conversations around race and racism?”

The Next Level of School Improvement Must Connect With Parents

So not only do teachers have to begin having courageous conversations (whether or not they use the famous protocol) with each other, eventually they’re going to have to get that humble and real with parents, too. Frankly, when I taught, though I tried to connect with honesty and humility with those parents who reached out to me, I wasn’t thoughtful or proactive about reaching out to them. I have been much more fortunate that teachers were ready and willing to do that for me as a parent, like when my daughter felt unsafe at school.

But I realize I bring white privilege, my experience as a teacher insider, and a set of positive expectations to my interactions with teachers. Many other parents don’t. Are school leaders and teachers ready and willing to be humble and vulnerable with them? Keri Rodrigues of Massachusetts Parents United put the question brilliantly.

Despite the Hard Stuff, There’s Reason for Cautious Optimism

So, it’s hard to get teachers to look hard at their own practice. It’s hard to tell the signal from the noise in the flood of data educators swim in these days. And it takes precious time to pause, reflect, and question one’s urge to jump to conclusions–whether it be about how to solve a problem or how to react to a kid. It’s hard to balance “the fierce urgency of now” with the reality that sometimes, if we don’t take that pause, we find ourselves firing before we have aimed.

Baltimore literacy teacher Alison Ambrose [pictured in the center of the panel photo at the top of this post] explained how this year has been different for her in trying to reach young teens who are still struggling with reading. “It’s an urgent problem. We can’t keep passing kids along. But before, we were trying things that didn’t work; a new thing every year.” This year, she said, “Instead of immediately coming in saying ‘this is how we’re going to fix it,’ we’re looking more deeply at the problem. We haven’t been looking at the problem; we’ve been looking for a solution. I feel more confident [now] that we’re on a path to something that will actually work.”

Getting high school staff to slow down, reflect and focus on improvement strategies within their control has been key to the success Chicago has experienced in increasing graduation rates and college persistence among its graduates. The Network for College Success has been a national leader in showing how to bring adults together in buildings to analyze problems and test solutions. I’m glad Gates is paying attention and lending financial support to this work.

Their new approach to school improvement is even encouraging folks who are often deeply skeptical of philanthropy’s role in public schools to shift to a stance of cautious optimism. As former teacher and edu-Twitter personality Jennifer Binis tweeted:

“I don’t think Gates is a solution. I do, though, think they’re filling gaps the federal government could but hasn’t (for reasons.) The good news is they’re trusting those doing the work. The bad news is they could change their minds.”

Photo credit: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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